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Highland holds off North rally, wins opener 28-20

Though North made things far more interesting than the Scots would have liked, Highland still got the desired result in its spring football opener.

The Scots scored four straight touchdowns in the second quarter, then withstood a valiant North comeback in the second half, holding on for a 28-20 win at Scotland Yard on Friday.

Things seemed all but locked up going into halftime, after AJ Cleveland led four second-quarter touchdown drives, three of which came off his passes, to give the Scots a 28-7 halftime lead.

He and Jojo Mata connected for scores of 20 and 30 yards. Cleveland, who threw for 209 of his 226 yards in the first half, also tossed an 18-yard scoring strike to Zephan Stephens.

It was a bit of deja vu for Cleveland, who threw for 369 yards and six touchdowns against North in 2019. That performance included a 24-point second quarter in what became a 52-28 win.

“It feels good … just knowing these guys on my left and right, knowing we can trust the coaches and the play calls and just punch the ball down their throats again," Cleveland said.

But North, which saw its lone first-half score come on a 92-yard Jan Mapa kick return touchdown, found life in the second half.

The defense forced two Cleveland interceptions, and turned both into touchdowns.

Filing in for an injured Brian Dean, Kai Shaw gained 101 of his 109 yards in the second half, and cut the deficit to 28-14 with a 3-yard score late in the third quarter.

After a second interception, the Stars got within one possession, as quarterback Carson Bennett, who split snaps all night with James Dixon, found Nate Davidson all by himself on a fourth-down touchdown pass of 39 yards, making the game 28-20 after the extra point was blocked.

“It’s tough to convince people you’re proud of your guys during a loss," Stars coach Richie Bolin said. "But for us, we just showed our character. The grit of being down (21) to a good team, a well-coached team. We’re not going to stop. We’re not quitters and I’m super proud of the fact that we showed our true colors in the second half.”

The comeback would ultimately fall short, though.

North did get the ball back with just over three minutes to play, but Highland linebacker George Venegas made the play of the night, undercutting an under thrown Dixon pass for an interception, the fourth turnover forced by the Highland defense.

Running back Dizzy Brown, who accounted for 118 scrimmage yards and a touchdown, gained a critical first down with an 11-yard run, then Cleveland clinched the game with a one-yard gain on third-and-1, which allowed the Scots to survive.

Though not pleased with the sluggish second half, Scots coach Mike Gutierrez saw enough positive Friday to maintain a high level of optimism for the season.

“I tell these guys all the time, if they want to work hard, they control their destiny and their ceiling's really high," he said. "If they keep working the way they are, I think everyone will be really happy with their results.”

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