It was a game for the ages

Published 2:30 pm Thursday, December 1, 2016

By Kevin Eckleberry

SYLVANIA – It’s easy to fall into this trap.

You watch a game, and you immediately proclaim it the best one you’ve ever seen.

We’re guilty of that in my line of work, of the live-in-the-moment mentality.

With that caveat in mind, in nearly 25 years of covering high-school football, I’d be hard-pressed to recall a game that had more suspense, more excitement, more exceptional play-making, and a more thrilling finish than the one I watched in Sylvania Friday night.

In the end, when the clock struck zero, it was the Callaway Cavaliers celebrating a 35-34 victory over Screven County in the third round of the Class AA state playoffs.

“It was the biggest game I’ve ever played in,” Callaway quarterback Dylan Johnson said. “It was fun. Games like this are always fun, especially when you come out on the winning side. It was just really exciting.”

Screven County did nothing to lose the game.

The Gamecocks are an impressive football team, and they were outstanding Friday night.

The Cavaliers were just one point better.

It wasn’t decided until the remarkable Braylon Sanders caught a short pass from Johnson and turned it into a 47-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left.

That touchdown, which capped a 98-yard drive, gave the Cavaliers a 35-34 lead, and that’s the way it ended.

“We wanted it. We grind every day,” running back DJ Atkins said. “We love each other. We’ve been grinding with each other since the summer. For us to have this, it’s the greatest feeling. A lot of teams want to be in our position right now.”

It’s a pretty good position.

Callaway (13-0) will be on the road Friday to face unbeaten Benedictine (13-0) in the final four.

The game will be played at Savannah State’s football stadium, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m.

That the Cavaliers are still playing is a testament to their talent, their coaching, and as clichéd as it sounds, to an unwillingness to lose.

Every time it looked like the Gamecocks were about to take control, the Cavaliers answered, and they found a way, much to the delight of the hundreds of fans who made the road trip to watch their team play.

“We talk about these kids leaving everything they’ve got on the field, every day,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “And they did that tonight. They never gave up. They believe in each other. I’m so proud of this football team, and this community.”

It helped that Callaway had the incomparable Braylon Sanders on its side.

The senior not only had two scoring catches, but he also returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown.

“Braylon is explosive,” Wiggins said. “When he gets the ball in his hands, there’s just so much he can do.”

Johnson, who has been through so many big games during his high-school career, was clutch.

He threw three touchdown passes, all in the second half, and he led the Cavaliers on that epic 98-yard scoring drive that began with just more than two minutes to play.

DJ Atkins, who has been a marvel in his first season at Callaway, accounted for more than 200 yards on the ground, and he had a huge fourth-down run on that final drive.

Fullback Jibrell Jackson had a touchdown run and led the way on a lot of Atkins’ runs, and junior wide receiver DQ Wilkerson came through with a scoring catch late in the third quarter.

Tight end Michael Freeman had a big catch to start the game-winning drive, and the offensive line was as effective as always.

Callaway’s defense had its hands full.

Screven County has so many weapons, and fullback CJ Wright was an absolute load and just about impossible to tackle, but when Callaway needed to make a stop, it did.

With possession in the final minutes and an opportunity to run the clock out, Screven was forced to give the ball up.

Special teams was huge as well.

Noah Stephens made a 27-yard field goal in the first half, and those were critical points in a one-point game, and Sanders had the kickoff return to open the second half.

There were so many heroes, so many men who played the game of their lives, but the bottomline is this.

Facing an outstanding team, on its own field, Callaway found a way to leave with a win, and that’s all that mattered.

“I love my teammates,” offensive lineman Jalen Moss said. “We work hard for this. We knew we could get it.”

Callaway won it in the second half when it outscored Screven County 32-20.

In the first half, Stephens’ 27-yard field goal gave Callaway its only points as Screven County surged to a 14-3 lead.

In the first half, Screven County got a 30-yard touchdown run from Wright, and a 39-yard scoring pass from Armani Bunbury to Tyquan Johnson.

It looked like the Gamecocks were going to pad their lead when they made it inside the Cavaliers’ 10-yard line late in the first half.

Tely Fanning came up with a fumble and it made it all the way to the Screven County 33-yard line before he was brought down.

The Cavaliers couldn’t turn that turnover into points, but they avoided going down by more than 11 points, and that was critical.

On Callaway’s lone first-half scoring drive, it was the Atkins show.

He had a 33-yard run to get the ball in Screven territory, and he caught an 18-yard pass to put the ball on the 9-yard line and set up Stephens’ field goal.

Three times after that in the first half Callaway made it into Screven territory, but it couldn’t score.

Still, despite everything that went wrong in the first half, Callaway was right there.

As the Cavaliers returned to the field for the second half, they were hoping to get a big play to turn the momentum.

Sanders obliged.

He accepted the opening kickoff, and he went the distance for the touchdown, and with Stephens’ extra point Screven’s lead was down to 14-10.

“The opening kickoff of the second half, putting points on the board, that was big,” Sanders said.

The Gamecocks didn’t blink.

They needed less than two minutes to go 52 yards and score a touchdown of their own, and it was Wright bulling into the end zone from one yard out for the score.

With 9:42 left in the third quarter, Screven’s lead was 21-10.

Callaway’s offense then got the ball for the first time in the second half, and that was bad news for Screven County.

Callaway’s offense had the ball five times in the second half, and it scored four touchdowns.

On their first possession of the second half, the Cavaliers went 62 yards in 10 plays, and it was Jackson finishing things off with a 4-yard scoring run.

Johnson completed a third-down 9-yard pass to Sanders for a first down on that drive, and Atkins had a 27-yard run to put the ball at the 10.

Two plays later, it was Jackson getting into the end zone from four yards out, and after an unsuccessful point-after try, Screven’s lead was 21-16.

After the teams traded punts, Screven County took over at its own 43-yard line, and it needed one play to add to its lead.

Bunbury threw a 56-yard scoring strike to Johnson, and with 1:06 left in the third quarter, Screven County led 28-16.

How would the Cavaliers respond?

How about with a two-play touchdown drive.

After a first-down play netted nothing, it was DQ Wilkerson getting behind the defense, and Johnson dropped the ball into his arms for a 63-yard touchdown.

Stephens knocked through the extra point, and with 10 seconds to play in the third quarter, Callaway trailed 28-23.

Back came Screven County with a 77-yard touchdown drive that ate up more than six minutes.

On fourth down, 310-pound tight end Lewis Wallace made a juggling, 16-yard touchdown catch, and with 5:43 to play, Callaway trailed 34-23.

The Cavaliers were now in a position where they not only had to score, but they had to do it quickly.

That’s what they did.

On first down, Atkins caught a 21-yard pass from Johnson, and Callaway had the ball in Screven territory.

Two plays later, it was Sanders striking again for a 36-yard touchdown catch.

Trailing by five, Callaway went for two in an effort to make it a three-point game, but Screven County made the stop, and it led 34-29 with 4:15 to play.

It was then on Callaway’s defense.

If the Gamecocks could continue to do what they’d done throughout the game, they’d be able to run out the clock.

Screven was stopped short of the first down, though, and facing fourth-and-one from the Callaway 47, head coach Ron Duncan opted for the punt.

“Our coach encouraged us to work hard, and to never give up in the game,” Callaway linebacker Qua Hines said. “And to just keep working hard on defense, do what we’ve got to do, and take care of business.”

The decision to punt looked like a wise one when Callaway was backed up at its 2-yard line.

The Cavaliers had a chance, though, and they believed.

“We knew we had two minutes,” Jackson said. “And we were going to make it work.”

A 19-yard completion from Johnson to Michael Freeman got the Cavaliers going, and they notched another first down on a 2-yard keeper by Johnson on first down.

Callaway got to midfield on a 10-yard run by Atkins, and four plays later, it was fourth down from the Screven County 47-yard line.

Johnson, looking as cool as Joe Montana (and I know I’m aging myself with that reference), took the shotgun snap and he surveyed the field.

When he saw Sanders coming across the field on a crossing pattern, he let it go.

It was a perfect pass.

Johnson hit Sanders in stride, and the senior wide receiver never slowed down as he turned up field and headed toward the end zone.

A few Screven defenders had an opportunity to bring Sanders down, but they had no chance.

As Sanders got close to the goal line, he went to the air, and he landed in the end zone.

The Cavaliers had the lead.

The Gamecocks had time for one play after the kickoff, and after Bunburry was tackled the clock hit zero, and that was that.

“We’re just proud of our team,” Wiggins said. “It was a great team effort. We’re proud of all of our kids.”