Cougars earn championship shot
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They were on the ropes.
Facing Cherokee Christian in the semifinals of the Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association state playoffs last week, the Lafayette Christian School Cougars were trailing 18-6 in the third quarter.
The Cougars needed a spark. They needed someone to make a play that could turn the tide.
They got it from sophomore Cason Firth.
After Cherokee Christian scored to go up by 12, Firth received the ensuing kickoff, and he raced 80 yards for the momentum-shifting touchdown.
The Cougars scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, and they held on for 19-18 victory to advance to the championship game.
Lafayette Christian will host Life Christian Academy on Friday, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m.
Lafayette Christian is attempting to win its second state title.
The Cougars won the 2015 state title in eight-man football, and now they’re on the doorstep of another championship in their first season as an 11-man team.
Lafayette Christian and Cherokee Christian were playing for the second time this season, and things went considerably different in the rematch.
Lafayette Christian came into that earlier game at 2-0, but it fell to Cherokee Christian 43-7 on Aug. 31.
“We had really performed poorly against them when we played them in week three,” Lafayette Christian head coach Nate Shaw said.
When Cherokee Christian went ahead 18-6 in last week’s games, it looked like it could be headed for another win over Lafayette Christian.
That’s when Firth came through with arguably the game’s biggest play, with his kickoff return for a touchdown and Nathan Fain’s extra point cutting Cherokee Christian’s lead to 18-13.
“That really gained the momentum back,” Shaw said.
The Cougars were still down by five points when they got the ball early in the fourth quarter, and they drove for the go-ahead touchdown.
“We went on a six-minute drive, running maybe three plays, a quarterback dive, a fullback power, and a little halfback off-tackle play,” Shaw said. “We just very methodically marched it down the field and ground it out and punched one in.”
Ben Dixon capped the drive with a touchdown run, and following an unsuccessful two-point attempt, Lafayette Christian had a one-point lead.
Cherokee Christian had plenty of time to drive for the winning score, but its hopes were dashed by a clutch interception by Cameron Elliott.
The Cougars got a first down on a run by Dixon, and time ran out.
Lafayette Christian scored first on a touchdown run by quarterback Landon Whitley, but Cherokee Christian rallied to go up 12-6 at the break.
A third straight touchdown in the third quarter extended the lead for Cherokee Christian before Lafayette Christian came storming back.
“Our defense really picked up,” Shaw said. “The kids are really comfortable with our scheme. We made very limited mistakes. They caught us a couple of times on good players to break down the scheme, but our kids didn’t break themselves down defensively. So we really did a good job. Coach Kevin Payne did a great job of calling the game, and the kids did a great job executing.”
Shaw also felt some outstanding special-teams play helped the Cougars walk away with the one-point win.
“Our kicking game and special teams were really good. We flipped the field,” Shaw said. “Nathan Fain, he had a 65-yard punt with no return, and really changed the field position. It put them in a bad spot in the first half, and we finally could play with some field position. We’ve had problems with that all year, so that was really big key for us.”
Offensively, Shaw said “we went back to old-school Lafayette Christian football. We just pounded the rock.”
The Cougars also won the turnover battle which was critical.
While the Cougars had one turnover, they forced two on interceptions by Elliott and Whitley.