Playoff journey begins for Cavaliers
HOGANSVILLE – Here we go.
The Callaway Cavaliers put the wraps on an exceptional regular season with a dramatic 21-14 victory over Central-Carroll last week in the Region 5-AAA championship game.
Now it’s time to turn the page.
The Cavaliers (9-1), who have won nine straight games since a season-opening loss to LaGrange, will begin what they hope will be an extended stay in the Class AAA state playoffs when they host Hart County (7-3) on Friday in an opening-round game.
The Cavaliers have won at least one playoff game in six of the previous seven seasons, and if they’re going to continue that success, they’ll have to find a way to upend a dangerous and potent Hart County team.
Hart County headed into its final game of the regular season with a chance to win a region title.
Instead, Hart County lost to Jefferson 43-27 and fell to fourth place in the region.
Before that loss, the Bulldogs had won four consecutive games, and one of those victories came against Oconee County, the Region 8-AAA champion.
Hart County has an explosive offense that has scored 38 or more points in six of its 10 games, and the defense hasn’t been dominant, but it has been good enough.
Hart County’s offense is led by senior quarterback Robert Allen, who is averaging 176 yards per game, and he has thrown 17 touchdown passes.
Allen has tossed two touchdown passes in each of his past five games, and he completed 16-of-21 passes for 178 yards last week against Jefferson.
Allen’s favorite target is 6-foot-2 Zach Maldonado, who has had a phenomenal season with 51 catches for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns.
Hart County has two running backs who have combined for 1,429 yards, and they’re averaging five yards per carry.
Senior Trey Clark has run for 650 yards with eight touchdowns, and Trae Stowers leads the team with 779 rushing yards, and he has scored five touchdowns.
So that’s what’s confronting the Cavaliers as they begin the do-or-die portion of the season.
“At this point, everybody’s good,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “Hart County’s got a great football team. They have a lot of tradition. They’re big, they’re physical. They’ve got got guys that can make plays. But we’re confident. We believe in what we do. The kids practice hard, and when we get on the field we believe we’re going to win.”
For the past nine games, the Cavaliers have done nothing but win.
The season began in disappointing fashion for the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers, who hurt themselves with some costly turnovers as well as more than 100 yards in penalties, lost to the LaGrange Grangers 45-20 on opening night.
The Cavaliers have known nothing but success since then, though.
They’re on a nine-game winning streak, and they head into the playoffs with all sorts of momentum after last week’s hard-fought win over Central-Carroll.
After taking a 14-0 lead, the Cavaliers found themselves in a tie ballgame late in the fourth quarter.
Callaway made a fourth-down stop, and the offense went down and scored the game-winning touchdown, with quarterback Dylan Johnson taking it in from six yards out.
The game had a playoff feel to it, and it was Callaway coming away with the win, and the accompanying region championship.
Now, Callaway will try to keep the wins coming.
There are 32 teams in the Class AAA state playoffs, and a team needs to win five games to capture the state title.
Many of the current players were members of the 2013 team that reached the Class AAA final four before losing to Buford 24-14.
“It’s very exciting,” senior offensive lineman Cortney Laye said. “It’s the last go-around, and it’s the playoffs. If you lose, you go home. We’re ready to play. We’re trying to go as far as we can go.”
Laye is a part of a senior class that has enjoyed tremendous success.
Over the past four seasons, the Cavaliers have won three region titles, five playoff games, and they’ve got at least one more game to go.
“This group of seniors, they’re a special group,” Wiggins said. “They’ll carry these memories for a lifetime.”
The Cavaliers have had to overcome some key injuries this season.
Among the players who has missed significant time is Laye, a three-year starter on the offensive line, who returned to the lineup last week after sitting out a handful of games.
Quarterback Braylon Sanders has been out the past four games with a knee injury, and a handful of other players have missed time as well.
“I’m proud of their work ethic throughout the season, and how far we’ve come, and the adversities we’ve overcome,” Wiggins said. “We talk about it every week. These kids just keep showing up for work. They’ve gotten better, and they believe in what we do.”
One player who has been there week after week is senior Cedric Maynard, who has been one of the state’s top running backs.
Last week against an elite Central-Carroll defense, Maynard ran for 229 yards on 30 carries with a touchdown, and his 71-yard run late in the game set up the winning touchdown.
“They played Cedric better than any other team we’ve played this year, and he still it it up,” said Johnson, who was the one handing the ball off to Maynard. “It’s unbelievable.”
In 10 regular season games, Maynard has 2,157 yards with 22 touchdowns during the regular season.
Maynard is averaging more than 12 yards everytime he touches the ball.
The offensive line has performed at a high level no matter who has been in the lineup, and Sanders and Johnson have both played well at quarterback.
Against Central-Carroll, Johnson had a pair of touchdown runs, including the game-winner.
Fullback Brandon Boddie has been a dominant lead blocker and has been effective when called upon to run, tight end Michael Freeman has been a strong blocker and pass catcher, and Dre Martin and Joe Brown headline a talented wide receiver corps.
Callaway’s defense has come along way since the season opener, and there are no holes on that side of the ball.
JT Wortham, a senior, has been among the team’s leaders in tackles in nearly every game this season, and fellow defensive linemen Rashawn Lovelace, Keegan Ramsey and Keegan Woods have been strong as well.
At the linebacker position, Javoski Leverette has bounced back nicely this fall after missing nearly the 2014 season with a broken leg and has been an elite defensive player.
Martin, Devin Brock, Jibrell Jackson and Freeman have excelled at linebacker as well.
Callaway’s secondary was shaken up when Dylan Johnson had to move to quarterback after the injury to Sanders, leaving a void at the safety position, and Courtney Williams has stepped in and played well there.
Along with Tyrek Frazier, Dominic Copeland has performed nicely in the secondary.
Callaway’s kicking game has been solid.
Sophomore Noah Stephens is almost a sure thing when it comes to extra points, he was 3-for-3 against Central-Carroll, and he has made a handful of field goals as well.
Johnson has done a terrific job as the Cavaliers’ punter.
The Cavaliers have developed into a complete team that could be poised to make a serious playoff run, but there is no margin for error.
If Callaway stumbles Friday, the season will be over.
“It’s win or go home, and we’re ready for it,” senior offensive lineman Stephen Curtis said.
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports