ADA — Every time it looked as if Ada had found an opening, Ardmore closed it quickly.
Even without three starters, the Tigers exacted their revenge in the "Battle of the Cats," beating their longtime rival 36-21 at East Central's Norris Field on Friday. Ardmore, ranked ninth in Class 5A, put up points on offense, defense and special teams in an opener that had highlights in every facet of the game.
"It showed that we're a better team than last year," Ardmore senior linebacker Brenden Hemenway said. "It showed we're stronger, faster and we come to hit."
Ada made it a one-possession game late in the fourth quarter, but O.J. Walker stole the momentum back with a 90-yard kickoff return that crushed a momentarily-lifted home crowd.
That was the speed. The strength came from an Ardmore defense that feasted on the Cougars for two interceptions and a fumble recovery, holding Ada, ranked fourth in 4A, down to a few big plays and little else. That was with two defensive starters and one on offense missing out due to disciplinary reasons.
Just imagine when the Tigers get back to full strength?
"All these guys stepping up, that made me real happy," Ardmore linebacker Jarred Hall said. "We work so hard. I'm really proud of everybody."
Ada quarterback Tryce Price threw two touchdown passes and Shiloh Windsor added a 79-yard TD run for the Cougars. Windsor's score in the second quarter cut Ardmore's lead to 19-14, but the Tigers answered right before halftime with arguably their most impressive drive of the game.
Sophomore quarterback Clay Atwood engineered a four-play, 45-yard march in less than a minute, setting up Ben Gonzalez for a 22-yard field goal that gave the Tigers a 22-14 lead at the break.
"There were three or four momentum changes in the first half — probably that in the second half — and we played every down," Ardmore coach Douglas Wendel said. "That's a big sign of a mature football team."
Atwood had 102 yards passing and two rushing touchdowns. Jamarcus Mills added a 2-yard TD run for the Tigers after Atwood connected with Walker for a 53-yard gain in the first quarter.
Mills was one of three players that rotated in at outside linebacker for Ardmore, along with Kydric Knox and Tevin Bowman. The humid conditions favored the team with the right combination of depth and conditioning, and Ardmore's showed on Bowman's big play in the third quarter.
Ada started the second half strong, driving 54 yards from its own 20, when Windsor fumbled on second down. Bowman scooped up the fumble and ran 80 yards untouched to put Ardmore ahead 29-14.
Bowman, a sophomore, didn't even know he'd be a significant part of the gameplan until earlier that afternoon.
"It was when we got to the fieldhouse; they said 'are you ready to step up?,' and I said 'yes sir," Bowman said. "I was just thinking I had to do it for coach (Josh) Newby and all the coaches."
Ardmore's win didn't come without miscues and a little bit of luck. The Tigers fumbled three times, losing only one. Following the one lost fumble, Mills recovered an Ada fumble on the next play to get Ardmore the ball back immediately. That set up Atwood's second touchdown, a 2-yard run in the second quarter to push Ardmore's lead to 19-7.
But the Tigers won with a second half combination of speed and a defense that got stronger as the night progressed. A muffed punt gave Ada a short field in the fourth, leading to Price's 14-yard TD pass to Micah Simmer with 4:15 to go. But Walker received the ensuing kickoff at the Ardmore 10 and was never touched, racing down the sideline to kill off Ada's momentum.
"I just looked it over, and felt good about it," Walker said. "We had a couple of mistakes but we fought through it, stayed determined and won the game."
And when the Cougars' offense came back on the field, it was four-and-out, with Price being hounded by an Ardmore front that had its ears pinned back.
Aside from his touchdown passes, Price finished just 3-of-14, with Ardmore's Kevion McGee and Rontrey Burkhalter each picking off passes in the second quarter.
"I think we were the better team in the end because of our speed," Wendel said. "But we wouldn't have won that game if we weren't physically and mentally improved from where we've been."
Follow Horne on Twitter: @ekhorneARD