Sometimes you need to rely on an X-Factor to get the W in the playoffs.
So there was Garren Harper Friday night, the unexpected hero in fourth-seeded Navarre’s opening round game against fifth-seeded Niceville.
He was wide open as the ball came spiraling towards him. He made the catch and took off for the end zone.
“I just ran down the field. I did not want to get caught,” Harper said.
No one had a chance to catch him as he scored on a 55-yard touchdown reception to put the Raiders in front by four with 2:11 to go in the third quarter in a wild, back-and-forth battle at Bennett C. Russell Stadium.
Navarre never trailed again and hung on for a riveting 49-47 victory to advance to the second round for the second consecutive year. Navarre (9-1) will travel to play St. Augustine (10-0) next Friday night at 6:30 p.m. central time in a 6A regional semifinal.
The Raiders and Eagles played a week ago in the regular-season finale. Navarre won 42-20.
The rematch was more intense, with the Raiders holding strong on two-point conversion attempt with 1:20 to play to secure the two-point win on a chilly November night in front of a frenzied crowd.
“You know that’s what you get when you play back-to-back. You get a crazy game like that,” Navarre head coach Jay Walls said. “Niceville is a great team. They had their guys ready. “I’m proud of our guys. There was adversity. We kept giving up big plays, but we kept playing hard.”
Harper made one of those big plays, and after his catch, he ran across the end zone with his arms raised to celebrate with his teammates. His score put the Raiders in front 42-38.
“It was my first touchdown ever,” Harper said. “That’s all I ever wanted. Just one touchdown in my career.”
He got it thanks to a great throw by Sage Chambers, who threw four touchdown passes in all, including one to Dante Wright on a 50-yard throw just seconds before halftime that put the Raiders up 21-17. It was one of three touchdown catches for Wright, who also scored a rushing touchdown. Chambers also ran for a score while Josh Carter bulldozed into the end zone on a 2-yard run.
Nothing came easy for the defense, though. Missed tackles allowed the Eagles to cash in big plays. A high snap on a punt attempt on Navarre’s first drive of the second half gave the ball to the Eagles at the Raiders’ 3-yard line. Quarterback Jack White scored and Niceville led 24-21.
The lead changed hands four more times before Harper’s touchdown.
The attention is now on the Yellow Jackets, the region’s top seed. They crushed Tate 49-14 Friday night. Navarre defeated St. Augustine 28-10 in the regional final last season. The Raiders have won their last 16 games on the road and will put the streak to the test against a fellow state title contender.
“We’re just happy to be 1-0 and we’re going to St. Augustine,” Walls said. “We’re going to try to do everything we can do to be 1-0 again next week.”
Read more in the Nov. 16 edition of the Navarre Press. Subscribe online at navarrepress.com for as little as $38 per year