OAKWOOD -- Cedric Harris was exhausted -- but he wasn't about to let that slow him.
All he and his teammates cared about was redemption.
Thanks in large part to Harris's 40-carry, 155-yard and two touchdown performance, Johnson football got just that on Friday, as the Knights won their first contest since 2010 by holding off West Hall 19-13 at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium in Oakwood.
"We needed this game, and we got it," Harris said. "Johnson football is all about fighting this year. There's no more 0-10; we're here to play."
The victory had fans and students charging the field and players and coaches kissing the ground -- including new head Knight Jason Roquemore, who took over in June hoping to rejuvenate a program that had gone winless the previous season.
"I don't think anybody outside of our locker room and our community expected us to win this football game," Roquemore said. "I think it was a thing of 'Johnson will be better, just not tonight.' I really challenged our coaching staff to have us working on finishing games and facing adverse situations, and that paid off tonight."
Indeed, the Knights (1-0) denied a late comeback attempt from the Spartans (0-1) , who scored with 4:23 left to play and moved to the Johnson 38-yard line before the Knights defense sacked West Hall quarterback Zach English as time expired.
"I know it looked great at times tonight, but we've got a lot of work to do," Roquemore said. "Tonight was a great step in the right direction. It's just part of the process."
Opening game jitters and the emotions that come along with a big rivalry gripped the opening few minutes of the contest, but Johnson gathered itself first, controlling much of the first half behind Harris's two touchdown runs. The Knights rushed for 148 yards of their 297 before halftime, holding the Spartans to just 34 yards in the process -- though West Hall used a defensive score to stay within a touchdown of the lead.
Johnson could not put the game away, however, as West Hall's offense found its rhythm in the second half behind English and receivers Xavier Johnson (4 catches, 48 yards) and Chase Jarrard (3 catches, 77 yards) the quarterback finishing with 136 yards passing . West Hall also rushed for 69 yards after halftime, including a two-yard plunge from Cameron Johnson to keep the pressure on and answer a 61-yard, third quarter touchdown scamper from Johnson's Luis Hernandez.
"The momentum we built up early was just too much," Harris said. "We came out and busted some heads and then pulled through."
The Knights' senior running back certainly did his share of the pulling, getting tackled for a loss just once during the contest.
"My teammates got behind me and just made sure I wasn't getting tired," Harris said.
Johnson's offensive line did an admirable job, clearing running lanes for Harris, Hernandez and quarterback Paul Barker, who also rushed for 46 yards while going 2-for-4 through the air.
"We want to establish the line of scrimmage, and (Harris) gets a lot of credit for that," Roquemore said. "With our running game, Cedric's the face of that -- but I tell you those big uglies (offensive linemen) played unbelievable."
Each team battled its share of miscues, including three turnovers for West Hall and two from Johnson. Emotions ran high from the opening kickoff -- and so did the mistakes, as West Hall jumped offside before the first play from scrimmage. Johnson then responded by fumbling on the first play.
The Spartans' Keith McCroan jumped on the loose ball at the Knights' 22, but West Hall could not take advantage -- thanks to the stout resistance of the Johnson defense, which forced a 37-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide.
The opening exchanges seemed to calm the Knights, who took over at their own 20 and churned their way downfield, putting together a 12-play drive that consisted of 11 runs. Harris did most of the heavy lifting and also showed off his speed and athleticism, capping the march with an 18-yard sprint in which he froze one Spartans defender and outran two others to the end zone. The point after touchdown attempt failed but that did little to dampen the outpouring of joy on the Knights' sideline and stands.
Johnson supporters exploded again just a few plays later when Knights defensive back Orion Pittman intercepted a West Hall pass and returned it to the Spartans' 26.
The turnover gave Harris another chance to shine and the senior didn't disappoint, finishing a short drive with a 6-yard scoring run for a 12-0 lead with 8:58 left in the half.
Just when all the momentum seemed firmly in Johnson's hands, however, the Knights gave West Hall another opening, fumbling away a handoff that Spartans linebacker Ty Statham picked up and returned 31 yards for a touchdown with 3:48 left in the half. The score touched off celebrations on the other half of Billy Ellis Memorial and ensured that things would stay close until the final whistle.
West Hall looked set to score through the air at the start of the third quarter, completing four of five passes to move the Spartans to the Johnson 8-yard line. But Johnson's defense stayed alert and picked off the sixth pass of the drive as it bounced off a Spartan receiver at the goal line and fell to Knights defensive back Dre Johnson.
The turnover sparked yet another pounding drive from Johnson -- though this one finished with an explosion, as Hernandez took an option pitch from Barker and raced around the left end for a 61-yard touchdown with 4:28 left in the third quarter.
West Hall refused to yield, however, and answered with Johnson's two-yard plunge with 4:23 left to play. The Spartans then forced a Johnson punt -- that West Hall came within inches of blocking -- and provided a final scare before the Knights held firm at their own 38.
"This validates a lot for us," Roquemore said. "It's easy to say that you have to work hard, but if you don't have anything to show for it, it gets discouraging."
Harris put it another way: "I feel sorry for whoever has to play us next."
Johnson will play host to Oglethorpe County next Friday.
West Hall, meanwhile, will take a week off and then look to bounce back when it plays host to Chestatee on Sept. 7.
West Hall....0....6....0....7 -- 13
Johnson......6....6....7....0 -- 19
JHS -- Harris 18 run (kick failed) 1:34, 6-0
JHS -- Harris 6 run (kick failed) 8:58, 12-0
WHHS -- Statham 31 fumble return (kick failed) 3:48, 12-6
JHS -- Hernandez 61 run (Henry kick) 4:28, 19-6
WHHS -- C. Johnson 1 run (Kirkland kick) 4:23, 19-13