Pioneers fends off Mars Hill in season finale

By Dallas Cook

   GREENEVILLE -- In their final game of the regular season the 22nd-ranked Tusculum College Pioneers hosted the Lions of Mars Hill College in SAC (Southern Atlantic Conference) play.
   After losing last week to Presbyterian, the Pioneers (8-2, 5-2 SAC) bounced back as they handed the Lions (7-4, 4-3 SAC) their second straight loss by the final of 21-14.
   Tusculum got things going in the first quarter as they marched down the field and scored the first touchdown of the game when quarterback Caleb Slover hit Bobby Thompson with a 41-yard touchdown reception.
   On third down and inches with just 41 seconds left in the first quarter, Mars Hill knotted things up at 7-7 as they surprised the Pioneers with a pass from Carlos Gatlin to tight-end David Cassell.
   The Tusculum defense stepped up big in the second quarter while stopping the Lions and holding them scoreless in the seven minutes they had the ball.
   The Pioneers tacked on two more scores in the half as Slover connected for touchdown passes to Aaron Claridy and Jonathan Brewer.
   "I'm excited about Brewer, he's a true freshman who has really stepped up and made some big plays for us," said Tusculum coach Frank DeBusk. "He's been consistent for us all year."
   With 9:40 left in the half Slover found Claridy on a screen pass for a 17-yard strike and later hooked up with Brewer to give his team a 21-7 advantage going into the locker room.
   "They did some things differently on defense than we expected," said Slover of the Mars Hill defense. "It kind of threw us off but we made a couple of big plays."
   In the first half Slover completed 13 of 19 passes and throwing for 194 yards.
   "The number one thing Caleb (Slover) brings to the table for us is competitiveness and leadership," said DeBusk. "Offensively he hung in there and did everything he could to make sure we won the football game. I'm just very proud with everything he's done for our program."
   The second half was an all defensive effort from both sides as Mars Hill managed the only score of the half.
   "I think our defense played a phenomenal football game," said DeBusk. "Offensively we didn't do some things we needed to do but I'm excited about the way they played."
   Running back Travis McFadden cut the lead down to 21-14 when he plowed through the Pioneer defensive line for a two-yard touchdown run with 12:45 remaining in the third quarter.
   "Defensively Mars Hill just had a great game," said DeBusk his opponents. "They kept our guys from making plays that they've been making all year."
   With time running down Mars Hill took the ball one last time on their own nine-yard line with 1:33 left in the game. Using short sideline passes, the Lions trotted down the field all the way to the Pioneers 40-yard line until the Tusculum defense came up big again.
   Junior defensive back JaRod Smith ended the Mars Hill drive with an interception at the two-yard line with 18 seconds on the clock to secure the Pioneer victory.
   With the win Tusculum set a new school record for most wins in a season with eight as they hope to move up in the rankings and get a shot at the post-season.
   In the game, Slover finished with 236 yards passing while completing 18 of 37 passes along with three touchdowns. Claridy tallied 74 yards on 15 carries while teammates Brewer (4 rec., 73 yds) and Reggie Jones (4 rec., 51 yds) also contributed to the Pioneer cause.
   It's been great and real exciting to play here," Slover said of his time wearing a Tusculum uniform. "It's great to come here and play especially for a winning program."
   For Mars Hill, McFadden finished with 135 yards rushing on 28 carries while Cassell hauled in five catches for 68 yards, including a touchdown reception.