Cavaliers hoping for breakthrough
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
It wasn’t the final game.
In the wake of a disheartening 13-10 loss to the Heard County Braves in the Region 5-AA championship game, the Callaway Cavaliers took some comfort from knowing that they had more football to play.
“After we lost that game, we thought we’re not through yet,” said Adrain Porter, a senior offensive lineman for the Cavaliers. “We’ve still got to fight. We just had to get focused on the practice field, and when it came to game time, we had to go 100 percent.”
Considering the Cavaliers are one of four Class AA teams still playing, they obviously did a stellar job of refocusing after the painful loss to the Braves.
Callaway will be on the road against the Rockmart Yellow Jackets today, with the winner advancing to the state-championship game against either Heard County or Fitzgerald.
This is the Cavaliers’ third trip to the semifinals in six years, and they’re attempting to reach the state-title game for the first time.
A year ago, Callaway beat Rockmart 40-35 in the second round of the state playoffs before losing to Brooks County.
“I think that kind of flipped our switch,” said senior offensive lineman Keiondre Jones, referring to the Heard County game. “We realized that if we didn’t take care of business, we’d be sitting at home right now. I think that hurt we felt that night all of us made the decision that we’re not going to feel that anymore. I think that pushed us even harder in the weight room, and out here on the field to be more focused. Since then, our preparation for each and every game has been crazy.”
Callaway followed up the loss to Heard County by crushing Jordan 56-0 in the regular season finale.
Callaway opened its playoff run by beating Elbert County 27-14, and it made a massive statement by beating defending Class AA state-champion Hapeville Charter 31-13 in the second round.
Callaway returned home for the quarterfinals, and it pulled away late to beat Washington County 35-20 and punch its ticket to the semifinals.
“I think we’ve gotten better every week. And that’s the goal,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “I think we’re playing our best ball right now. I think our kids are confident. They believe in one another. They believe in what we do on the field. Our kids are playing physical. So we’re excited about the opportunity Friday night.”
Standing in Callaway’s way is a Rockmart team that has been flying high since day one.
Rockmart, the Region 7-AA champion, brings a 13-0 record into today’s showdown.
The Yellow Jackets feature an offense that has been unstoppable so far, averaging
47 points per game.
Rockmart has two running backs in Markus Smith and Zabrion Whatley who have each run for more than 1,000 yards, and they’re each averaging more than 11 yards per carry.
Whatley is the team leader with 18 touchdowns, and Smith has 16 touchdowns.
Rockmart also has an effective passing attack with Dylan Bailey leading the way.
Bailey has thrown for 1,423 yards with 21 touchdowns, and he has only thrown four interceptions.
Juke Boozer is Rockmart’s top receiving threat with 25 catches for 693 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Rockmart has been just as dominant defensively, holding opponents to less than eight points per game.
In an early-season game, Rockmart made a statement with a 33-0 victory over Heard County, and it has continued to roll since then.
“Rockmart is very talented offensively,” Wiggins said. “They’ve got four backs. They’ve got a receiver that can go get the ball. I think their offensive line does a great job. Defensively, they’re very sound, too. They do a great job. The defensive line is a strength of their team. Their outside backers and their safeties are really special. Those kids run to the ball. They’re physical, they’re fast.”
Rockmart’s closest game came in the season opener when it beat Cedartown 20-14.
It’s been mostly blowouts since then, although Bremen hung tough in the second round of the playoffs before losing 35-23.
“There’s a reason why they’re 13-0,” Wiggins said. “When we played them last year, they were a young team. It was a really close game at Rockmart. So, most of those kids are back. They’re going to have a very talented team on the field Friday night.”
The same goes for the Cavaliers, who are peaking at the right time.
Callaway’s offense has been unstoppable, with Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby and Qua Hines creating a potent one-two combination at running back.
In the three playoff games, Bigsby and Hines have combined for 1,019 yards and 11 touchdowns.
For the season, Bigsby has 2,016 yards on 199 carries with 20 touchdowns, and he has 643 yards and seven touchdowns in the playoffs.
Sophomore Demetrius Coleman moved to quarterback for the regular-season finale against Jordan, and he has been terrific.
In the big road win over Hapeville Charter, Coleman completed 5-of-6 passes for 80 yards, and he was 8-of-14 for 162 yards and two touchdowns against Washington County.
Jacob Freeman, who was the quarterback for the first nine games, has moved back to receiver, and he had two touchdown catches last week, although one of them was called back because of a penalty.
Markus Morman also had a touchdown reception against Washington County, and Antinez Blount and Dre Potts have been effective pass-catchers as well.
Leading the way is a formidable group of offensive linemen that includes Keiondre Jones, Adrain Porter, Keshawn Cameron, Austin Thomas and Tate Johnson, and fullback T Bonner has been instrumental in the blocking scheme as well. Jones said he and the other offensive linemen put a lot of weight on their shoulders heading into the playoffs.
“I think we kind of knew that if we didn’t do what we need to do that we’d be at home watching somebody else play in the state-championship game,” Jones said. “I don’t think anybody on this team wanted that. We knew we had to take care of business.”
Fullback Jabari Smith has been a key part of the offense as well, as a ball-carrier, receiver, and blocker.
Callaway’s defense has been up to the challenge as well.
The defensive line has been a strength of the team all season, with Tyrique Andrews, Tre Heard, Destin Patrick Curmondre Bray, Lavaris Patterson, Nathan Sapp, Keshawn Suggs and Keshawn Cameron getting it done up front.
At linebacker, RJ Williams and Tely Fanning have been the leading tacklers this season, and they’ll both be instrumental in attempting to slow down Rockmart’s high-powered attack.
Sophomore Charlie Dixon did a nice job of filling in at linebacker for the injured Williams in last week’s game, and Qua Hines and Dee Bonner have also gotten it done at linebacker.
The secondary has been super as well.
That’s a group that includes Jalin Shephard, who had two interceptions, including a pick six, in the first round of the playoffs against Elbert County. Sidderian Shealey, Antinez Blount and Dre Towns have also been getting it done in the secondary.
“Defensively, our two inside linebackers, RJ Williams and Tely Fanning, have gotten better throughout the year. Those two kids play fast, and play hard,” Wiggins said. “The defensive line might be the best defensive line that we’ve had. Those guys run to the ball extremely well and play fast. The back end of our defense was young coming into the season. They’ve grown, they’ve matured. And they keep getting better each week.”
Troup is set in the special-teams department as well, with senior Hunter Williamson excelling as a place kicker and a punter.
“I think special-teams wise, Hunter Williamson is one of our most-improved players,” Wiggins said. “He’s just been really solid.”
Put it all together, a big-play offense, a shut-down defense, and an effective kicker, and it’s no surprise the Cavaliers are two wins from a state title.
“All of those are ingredients to make a great football team, and I’m excited about where we are right now,” Wiggins said. “We’re going to go to Rockmart and see what we can do.”
WHEN: Today, 7:30 p.m.
WHAT: Semifinals of the Class AA state playoffs