WEST FORK — Nate Henderson is considered the leader on Paris’ defensive unit, and for good reason.
The junior defensive back returned a fumble for a touchdown and made a key tackle to stop another as the Eagles remained unbeaten with a 20-7 nonconference victory Friday night over previously unbeaten West Fork.
“When you look at him, you think Nate’s a little guy,” Paris coach Tyler Clark said. “But he gets after you. I’m really proud of him — and the whole team. They do a great job.”
West Fork (2-1) already had a couple of bad exchanges on pitch plays, and the third one eventually sealed the Tigers’ fate. Quarterback Eli Howerton was trying to get the ball to Wyett Kutz on a sweep, but it fell to the ground right at Henderson’s feet.
Henderson then picked up the loose ball and raced 35 yards untouched for the score, and James Yang’s extra point gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead with 4 minutes, 57 seconds left in the first half.
“I just came around the corner, and I saw the ball,” Henderson said. “I just said ‘Go.’ I picked the ball up and ran, and the only thing running through my mind was there was somebody behind me. I just kept running.”
The score remained that way, thanks to Henderson’s heroics in the third quarter after West Fork recovered a muffed punt on the Eagles’ 16. The Tigers then drove to the 8 before they elected to put the ball in the hands of burly fullback Brenan Cash on a fourth-and-2 play.
Henderson, despite a noticeable size disadvantage, wrapped up Cash and dropped him in West Fork’s backfield for a 3-yard loss.
“We just struggled in the end zone,” Tigers coach Justin Smith said. “We had success getting the ball down here and had four red-zone trips. We didn’t come away with points on them, and in high school football that hurts you. You have to be able to convert on big-money downs.”
Paris then added to its lead in the fourth quarter after a questionable turn of events. Quarterback Chase Watts made a diving recovery of his fumble after he was sacked, then the officials ruled that West Fork had possession of the ball and turned the play into another first-and-10 for the Eagles instead of a second-and-20.
Watts, who scored Paris’ first touchdown on a 2-yard keeper, did it again eight plays later and gave the Eagles a 20-7 cushion with 9:07 remaining.
“We were fortunate to get out of here with a win,” Clark said. “Our kids fight, scratch and claw and do everything we ask them to do. I couldn’t be more proud of our kids.”
West Fork took a 7-0 lead on Cash’s 7-yard run with 8:28 before halftime, but the Tigers drove inside the Paris 20 following Henderson’s touchdown before they fumbled the ball away a second time. West Fork also drove inside the Eagles 20 on their last possession before the drive stalled on a fourth-down incomplete pass.
• It was Senior Night as West Fork honored its seniors in all fall sports.
• The win gives Paris its first 3-0 start since 2011, when the Eagles defeated Green Forest, Waldron and Heavener, Okla., in nonconference games.
• West Fork defensive back Colby Smith made the unlikely interception in the third quarter while he was on his back as the ball went off the hands of a Paris receiver and fell on his chest.
• Both teams will have an open date next week. West Fork will begin 3A-1 Conference play Sept. 25 with a home game against Mansfield, while Paris hosts Mayflower to begin 3A-4 Conference action.
PARIS 20, WEST FORK 7
Paris.................0 14 0 6 — 20 West Fork...........0 7 0 0 — 7 Second Quarter
West — Cash 7 run (Baldwin kick), 8:28. Paris — Watts 2 run (Yang kick), 6:06. Paris — Henderson 35 fumble return (Yang kick), 4:57.
Paris — Watts 2 run (kick fail), 9:07.
Henry Apple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NWAHenry.
This story was originally published at 7:30 a.m.