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Callaway’s memorable season comes to close

By Kevin Eckleberry

kevin.eckleberry@lagrangenews.com

SAVANNAH – They ran into a better team.

That was the reality of the situation for the Callaway Cavaliers on Friday night in the semifinals of the Class AA state playoffs.

Benedictine has been the undisputed powerhouse in Class AA throughout the season, and it came into Friday’s game having laid waste to three consecutive playoff opponents.

Callaway was hoping to slow Benedictine’s momentum.

The Cavaliers, despite having to make a second consecutive road trip to the other side of the state while the Cadets were at home for the second straight week, were confident, and with good reason.

Like Benedictine, Callaway came into the game with a 13-0 record, and it was coming off that remarkable 35-34 win over Screven County in the state quarterfinals.

Along the way, Callaway had beaten a number of other quality teams, including Handley, which rolled to an Alabama state championship on Thursday night.

Callaway was ready for the challenge.

The night belonged to Benedictine, though.

The Cadets, with their unstoppable rushing offense, scored a touchdown on their opening possession, and by the half they held a 27-3 lead.

Any hope Callaway had of mounting a comeback was dashed in the third quarter, with Benedictine scoring 22 points to take a 49-3 lead.

Callaway scored its lone touchdown in the fourth quarter, with senior wide receiver Braylon Sanders taking off on a 31-yard scoring run.

There were some things Callaway could have done better, and there were some calls in the early going that greatly benefited the home team.

One of the calls wiped out a Braylon Sanders touchdown catch, and another apparent scoring reception by DQ Wilkerson was called incomplete.

But some days you just run into a buzz saw, and that’s what happened to Callaway.

The Cavaliers didn’t make the trip to lose, so they were disappointed.

There were hugs, there were tears, and the expressions on the faces of the players told the story.

What a special season it was, though.

When the players look back and reflect on what they accomplished over the past three months or so, they’ll feel nothing but pride, and rightfully so.

The Cavaliers finished 13-1, giving them the most victories in the 20-year history of the program, they captured a region championship, and they made it to the final four for the second time in four years.

That Callaway lost its final game does nothing to diminish what this group of players and coaches accomplished.

“I’m really proud of our football team,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “These nine seniors have been great leaders all year long. We’ve overcame so much adversity, and to win 13 ballgames is very special, and it tells the tale of what these guys are about. Obviously tonight is a disappointment. You put this kind of time, this much work into it, obviously it hurts. But again, these guys are a bunch of winners.”

Wiggins also expressed his great appreciation for the members of the Callaway family that supported the team by hitting the road the past two weeks.

It was two long road trips (and that Callaway had to do that two weeks in a row while Benedictine didn’t have to travel was to me an extreme injustice), but the fans filled up the visitor’s stands for both games, despite the distance.

‘To play this far away and see all those red and black shirts in the stands is so special,” Wiggins said. “I appreciate all the community coming down here and supporting these kids.”

Replacing the nine seniors will be a challenge.

Among that group is the dymamic Braylon Sanders, who had such an extraordinary season, and who will ever forget his game-winning 47-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-seven against Screven County.

The man who throws the ball to Sanders, Dylan Johnson, is also graduating, and what a hole that will leave.

Also graduating is linebacker and tight end Michael Freeman, a physical and emotional leader for the team.

Among the other seniors are fullback Jibrell Jackson, a bruising runner and blocker, ball-hawking corner back Dominic Copeland who had two picks in a win over Brooks County, the versatile Thomas Hodge who played on the offensive line and the defensive line in the Benedictine game, offensive lineman Dominic Carter who made a huge contribution in his one and only season at Callaway, defensive lineman Keegan Woods who was an anchor on the defense the past few seasons, and wide receiver Khaliq Swift, who’ll be a standout on the wrestling team.

“These nine guys have led us all year,” Wiggins said. “I’m really proud of them, and our entire football team. The guys work hard.”

The Callaway team that takes the field for next year’s season opener against LaGrange will have the same lofty expectations, though.

It will be an experienced and talented team.

Among the men who’ll be returning next season are running back DJ Atkins, who had more than 2,000 yards this season, offensive lineman Keiondre Jones who is one of the state’s most heavily recruited players, wide receiver DQ Wilkerson who had two touchdown catches in the playoffs, defensive standouts Courtney Williams (cornerback), Jonathan Leonard (linebacker) and Jamie Sellers (defensive lineman), standout kicker Noah Stephens, and that’s just a small sampling of the players who’ll be coming back.

Callaway even had some freshmen including Jacob Freeman, Cartavious Bigsby and MJ Robertson who were major contributors this season.

Callaway will be a force next season.

As for the Benedictine game, here are a few thoughts.

As I briefly mentioned above, that Callaway had to be on the road for nearly 1,000 miles over the course of two weeks while Benedictine didn’t have to leave Savannah is a travesty.

I’m not blaming Benedictine for this.

If you get the opportunity to play in your own stadium, you obviously do it.

I’m also not implying there was anything unethical going on.

There were coin flips the past two weeks.

Benedictine won two, and Callaway lost two.

The problem I have is having the bracket set up where this can happen at all.

It puts a team like Callaway at such a competitive disadvantage, and obviously the cost involved in making two trips like this is extremely high.

That is not why the Cavaliers lost, though.

Benedictine is a private school, and there are plenty of advantages that come with that, and it has been able to put together a monster of a team compiled of players from different parts of one of Georgia’s largest cities.

Not to rekindle the whole private vs. public argument, but there is no way to deny how much of an edge that gives a school like Benedictine which can offer so much more than many of the beleaguered public schools in Savannah.

I should also point out that Benedictine won an appeal to play down in Class AA earlier this year, and that’s another story.

As for the game, had Callaway’s early long touchdown pass from Johnson to Sanders not been wiped out by a penalty, it could have certainly slowed Benedictine’s momentum.

Would it have changed the outcome?

Likely not, but losing a touchdown is still a brutal blow for a team fighting for a road victory against a great team.

It was nonetheless a phenomenal season and a fun ride, and congratulations to Wiggins, his coaches, the players, and everyone associated with the Callaway football family.

See you next season, Cavs.