In the third quarter of Marist’s crucial region matchup against Southwest DeKalb, head coach Alan Chadwick saw that one of his most reliable players didn’t have his head in the game. That player was kicker Austin Hardin, who had been 5-for-5 on field goals for the year, but had missed his first two during the pivotal Region 6, Class 4A matchup.
“I had missed a couple, and I wasn’t hitting my kickoffs out of the end zone like usual. He could tell I wasn’t really there mentally,” Hardin recalled.
The 26-year head coach approached his junior placekicker with a simple question.
“What do you want to do most as a kicker?” he asked.
Hardin’s response was swift.
“Kick a game-winning field goal,” he responded.
“Well that’s what you’re going to do tonight,” Chadwick said.
Later on, Hardin found himself in that exact scenario. With nine seconds on the clock and the game deadlocked at 14, he had a chance to win the game. But this wasn’t just any normal attempt. With second place in the region and the right to host a first-round playoff game possibly on the line, Hardin needed to nail his attempt from the daunting distance of 59 yards.
THE BUILDUP …
Just the distance of Hardin’s kick was enough to make anyone nervous. But with so much on the line, the 59-yarder became even more crucial. Coming into the Sept. 17 game, the No. 8 War Eagles and Panthers had both been defeated by region rival Tucker.
The losses hurt region championship hopes for both teams, making the game between the two region favorites all the more important, as it would likely decide second place in the region. Add in the fact that No. 3 Tucker was yet to lose a region game, and a loss all but eliminated the loser from region title contention as well.
That meant that a loss could have prevented Marist from hosting a playoff game in the first round, and the potential for more postseason games on home turf throughout the postseason. But just as he did with the 59-yarder, Hardin was excited about the possibilities of another Friday night against a big-time opponent with so much on the line.
“I enjoy it [those type of games],” Hardin said. “You really get to see what your like against the best in the state.”
THE GAME …
Hardin’s final kick was a miraculous cap to what had already been a great game.
It was a game of missed opportunities for the War Eagles. First they failed to score after having second-and-goal at the SWD 2-yard line, turning the ball over on downs. They also threw two interceptions to go along with Hardin’s two missed kicks.
Toran Davis’ 7-yard touchdown scamper gave the Panthers a 14-7 lead in the third quarter. But the visitors responded with a clutch 1-yard score from Gray King on fourth-and-goal with 4:48 to play.
“We played hard and we pushed all game, but we left a lot of points on the board,” Chadwick said.
After tying the game up, Marist got the ball back soon after thanks to a fine defensive stand on third-and-one. With 2:22 to play, the War Eagles began their final drive at their own 30. Quarterback Andy Perez twice hooked up with Jason Snellings to drive the team to the SWD 42 to set up the final play.
THE DEED …
Chadwick’s confidence did not wane in his strong-legged, but struggling kicker, as he immediately called for the field goal team without hesitation.
“There was no hesitation [to call on the kicking unit],” he said. “That’s what you want to have happen, you want that opportunity. He’s got such a great leg and he’s got a shot from 60 yards.”
With the pressure on his shoulders more than ever, Hardin embraced the chance to nail the biggest kick of his life. The first-year starter knew that a successful kick would help his team immensely, and also get him noticed by colleges. Having sat behind Georgia Tech commit Justin Moore in previous seasons, this was his first chance to do so. And as his head coach called for him to take the field, a calm came over him.
“As soon as they called the field goal it seemed like I was in a special zone,” he said. “I just said to myself ‘I’m not gonna miss this. This is what you’ve been waiting for your whole season and this is the kick is gonna hopefully get you noticed by colleges.’”
As the kick went up, the ball sailed through the night for what seemed like forever. In fact, an entire six seconds would go off the clock before the ball reached its destination.
“Honestly, it wasn’t one of my best kicks,” Hardin said. “It did have a good distance, but it stayed up in the air forever. For a second I was like ‘dang it I missed this, this is gonna come up short.’ As it was going through the air, I was just like ‘please go through.’”
Go through it did. The field goal cleared the uprights by three or four yards. And Marist had an unlikely hero. In the midst of the excitement, the War Eagles amassed a plethora of excessive celebration penalties as they rushed the field while Chadwick and other coaches tried to hold players back. In the end they would have to take the ensuing kickoff from their own 20-yard line.
“Even my Dad came down and he almost tackled me and I was like ‘Dad the game’s still going!” Hardin remembered.
But SWD didn’t threaten on the return, and Hardin had just helped his team to its greatest victory of the season to date.
“As soon as that went through I was so happy,” Hardin said. “It was almost like a dream.”
GOING FORWARD …
The win surely enhanced Marist’s state playoff credentials. But the War Eagles know there is still work to be done. Hardin, who also plays defense for Chadwick, thinks the team still must improve to get where the coaches and players want to be.
“We watched film and there was just so much we had done wrong that game,” Hardin said. “We are a good football team but the coaches’ expectations and aspirations for us are to be a great football team. That game should have never come down to what it did.”
But despite the mistakes, the game did come down to the final moments. And now, Marist knows it has a kicker that is more than capable of helping them to a big victory should it happen again.