MADISON – Anger. Disgust. Fear. Happiness. Sadness. Surprise. You name the emotion, A.J. Hasley experienced it Friday night on what turned out to be a rollercoaster of a homecoming for the MRA junior running back and his family.
You can add love - the most powerful off all emotions - to that list. More specifically, love for his older brother, Donovan, a senior defensive lineman who suffered a knee injury late in third quarter and later was carted off.
Perhaps that explains why A.J. started crying uncontrollably in the midst of an 18-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter – the second of three on this early October night. It certainly explains why his mother, Mary, ran out to A.J. and embraced him and cried out loud with her son near midfield in the moments following MRA's 49-12 bounce back victory over Parklane at Patriot Field. And it most assuredly is the reason why he cried once again when met up with Donovan in the Patriots' weight room some 10-15 minutes later.
Donovan, with a brace on his injured left knee and bearing crutches, was actually able to keep his emotions in check during the heartfelt encounter. A.J., with his dad, Daron, looking on nearby, couldn't.
"When (injury) happened I was kind of sad at first, then I thought that he really wouldn't want me to be sad," A.J. said. "I channeled it into anger. I wasn't thinking about the touchdown on that particular play. I just wanted to be playing with my brother. That's all I was thinking about. We really didn't know what happened when he got hurt. We just know it didn't look good. He's been struggling all season with a shoulder injury, now it's something else. I hate it for him, I really do."
Mind you, A.J.'s night started with him sitting on the bench. Normally a starter, he was forced to sit and watch as Trey Zito, who was inserted into the starting lineup at running back in place of Hasley in part because MRA head coach Herbert Davis was trying to light a fire under the Patriots' leading rusher because he didn't think Hasley was performing the way he should as of late.
It ended with him rushing for three touchdowns – he had a 2-yard score late in the second quarter to give MRA a 35-6 halftime lead, and added a 33-yarder with just under five minutes left to cap the scoring – and more than likely earning his starting job back.
Then, of course, there was the injury to his brother – sadly the latest in a long line of injuries to key players MRA has already had to digest in the first eight weeks of the season. Donovan had largely played behind the likes of John Cartwright, Sam Shufelt and Jake Flynt along the defensive line the past couple of years. This was supposed to be his year, as a senior. That's one reason he kept plugging away despite a nagging shoulder injury. Now this.
"No I haven't," Davis responded afterwards when asked if had ever had a team have so many injuries to so many key players. "It's terrible. When I went out there first thing I said to myself was oh no, not the knee. As for A.J., I was very proud of him. He could've quit and pouted about (benching). But he did what you would want him to do and that's bow up and play harder. You could see tonight when he got the ball, he played at the speed he's capable of playing. And that's what we wanted. I'm proud to see him play like that."
MRA, which had lost back-to-back road games at Philadelphia and Briarcrest the past two weeks after a blazing 5-0 start, improved to 6-2 overall, 2-0 in conference play.
Parklane dropped to 5-2, 0-2. The Pioneers had four costly turnovers, three in the first half leading to 21 MRA points.
Puckett, a cornerback who missed the first few games with an injury of his own, had two interceptions. Landon Fulcher, who added an acrobatic 31-yard touchdown reception with three minutes left before halftime, got the third interception. Drew Horton was credited with the fumble recovery. The Patriots, meanwhile, played turnover free and got a touchdown via special teams as Colorado commit Joe Perkins returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown near the end of the first quarter.
"We absolutely needed this game, especially after the past couple of weeks," Puckett said. "This is a big conference win. I felt like we came out really well. We gave up an early touchdown, but we responded to that the way good teams do. We didn't finish the game off like we should have . . . we let them hang around for a little too long. Overall, we played physical, though, and we played well."
Said A.J. Hasley: "We practiced harder than we've practiced all year this week. We were really focused."
Some of that focus waned after MRA built a commanding 35-6 halftime lead. The Patriots failed to score on their first two possessions of the third quarter when a touchdown of any sort would've invoked the mercy rule and subsequent running clock. Then, Parklane broke through with its second touchdown of the night – the other came midway through the first quarter – late in the third quarter to make it 35-12. That's the drive in which Hasley was injured.
"That's the only thing . . . we couldn't come out in the second half and close it out like we would've liked," Davis said. "We could've got some players out of the game if we could have, and it may have cost us because we didn't. No. 50 (Hasley) would've been one of the ones we would've got out early."
At 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, A.J. Hasley isn't the biggest of backs. However, he has a knack for bursting through open seams and getting into the secondary. With the way the Patriots' offense spreads out opposing defenses, it's a formula that has worked at times. Without question, MRA, especially in big games, needs some semblance of a running game to complement the passing of record-setting quarterback and reining league Offensive Player of the Year Philip Short.
Hasley finished with 76 yards on just nine carries after entering in the waning minutes of the first half. He leads the team in rushing with 458 yards on 61 carries to go along with eight touchdowns. Zito, who has looked good in mostly mop up duty prior to this night, had a net 33 yards on nine carries, including a 3-yard touchdown run on the Patriots' third offensive play of the game. Zito also had two receptions for 19 yards.
"When I saw (Zito) get it going, it made me want to get going," Hasley said. "It was a chain reaction type thing. I was really proud of him, though. He stepped up and did what he was supposed to do."
So, too, did Tyler Starnes. The senior wideout had four catches for 126 yards (all in first half), including a 36-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter. His 49-yard catch helped set up Fulcher's touchdown, and his 34-yard catch set the stage for Hasley's first touchdown run. Starnes has emerged as one of Short's favorite targets, compiling 15 catches for 350 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games alone.
"I don't like to single anybody out, because all my receivers are good, but look at what Tyler Starnes has done the last three weeks . . . that's really impressive," Short said.
Speaking of impressive, Short, already the MRA career leader in touchdown passes, also became the school's career leader in passing yardage Friday night. Both records used to belong to Hunter Husley. They now belong to Short, who now has 4,878 passing yards in 21 starts over the last two seasons to go along with 55 touchdown passes. He threw for 218 yards (182 in the first half) and a pair of touchdowns Friday playing on an injured ankle for the third straight week.
Short needed 123 yards to break Hulsey's record coming into the game. He surpassed that mark on the 31-yard touchdown pass to Fulcher on a 4th-and-23 play with 3:06 remaining in the first half. Fulcher somehow came down with the ball between a pair of Parklane defenders along the sideline.
"That's awesome," Short said, with a big grin. "Just to know that I have my name in record books here at MRA, and to know that I'm leaving a legacy for others to come behind me, that's a pretty special feeling. I couldn't do it without my coaches, and without my teammates, especially the offensive line and the receivers. They make my job a whole lot easier. I get all the credit, but all the credit goes to God and those guys."
MRA is 18-3 with Short as the starting quarterback and has yet to lose a home game during that stretch. The Patriots travel to Flowood the next two week to take on Hartfield and Jackson Prep, respectively, before hosting their final regular season home game against PCS the following week.
"I love playing here at home," Short said. "This home environment is crazy. Our fans help us out a lot. We played a very physical team tonight and we were able to come away with the win. We've still got a lot of room for improvement, myself included, but overall I thought we played a lot better than we did the past two weeks. We had a lot more energy. We looked better overall."
"I thought we played pretty good for the most part," he said. "I thought defensively we were good. We just had too many penalties that put us into some long yardage situations tonight, I thought our O-line got better tonight. We've still got to get better there and in some other areas, but I thought we blocked pretty good. I thought we were able to be a little more balanced tonight, and that's what we wanted."
MRA has lost to Parklane just once (2017 in McComb) in the past two decades. The Patriots have won the last three meetings against the Pioneers by a combined score of 131-33, with two of those wins coming a year ago. Turnovers once again played a big role, as MRA was able to convert Parklane's miscues into points.
Defensive coordinator Danny White's crew has come up with 14 turnovers (7 fumbles, 7 interceptions) this season, leading to 82 points. They've also scored four defensive touchdowns. MRA also limited the run-dominant Pioneers to 189 net rushing yards on 48 carries – well below their average. MRA, meanwhile, totaled 350 yards of offense, including 132 on the ground. The Patriots were well-balanced, running on 26 plays and passing 26 times.
While's Fulcher's catch was very impressive, and it inked Short's name in the record book, the play of the night was turned in by Perkins, who electrified the crowd on his dazzling punt return. "The punt was a little wobbly and I let it bounce to me before I picked it up," he said. "I started heading to the right to let the blocks be set up, and then I cut into the open field and it was nothing but green grass from there. It was a great feeling. I had been waiting to get one. Hopefully, there's many more to come."