Cavaliers chasing a championship
Published 1:03 pm Thursday, November 14, 2019
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
It’s time to chase a championship.
The Callaway Cavaliers, perennial state-title contenders for a decade, will begin what they hope will be a lengthy playoff journey on Friday when they host Chattooga in a first-round game.
The Cavaliers have made it at least as far as the state quarterfinals for three straight years, and they’ve been to the semifinals three times since 2013.
“It’s the playoffs, the weather’s getting cold, the leaves are changing. It’s just a special time,” said Pete Wiggins, Callaway’s head coach since 2005. “So we’re excited about the opportunity to begin what we call our third season. We have the non-region (schedule), the region, and then the playoffs. So it’s a special time, and the kids’ body of work will be on display Friday night, and then we hope several more weeks.”
The Cavaliers (9-1 overall) head into the playoffs on the heels of another phenomenal regular season under Wiggins.
Callaway has won nine consecutive games since a season-opening loss to Opelika, and it won the Region 5-AA championship with a 6-0 record.
Now it’s time to turn the page, to begin the quest for a state title, a goal that is no doubt within reach for the Cavaliers.
“We look at this time of year as it’s time for us to get really going,” said Zach Neighbors, a senior offensive lineman for the Cavaliers. “All the days in the weight room, practice, this is when we come out here and do our grind.”
While the Cavaliers have yet to claim the ultimate prize, a state title, they’ve thrived in the playoffs under Wiggins.
The Cavaliers have won at least one playoff game every year but once since 2008, and that includes the three trips to the semifinals.
Wiggins wants this time of the year to be a reward for the players, a pay-off for the commitment they’ve put in since the offseason conditioning program began in January.
“When you get to the playoffs, and our team has been successful and we feel good about where we’re at, I think that is a great pay-off for the work the kids have put in, the time that we’ve been on the field, the time that our coaches have spent to make our team better,” Wiggins said. “It’s very special. It’s what makes Friday nights such a special time in an athlete’s life.”
That the Cavaliers would be in this position coming into this season was far from a given.
Callaway lost more than 20 seniors from last year’s team, many of whom played critical roles on a team that went 11-3 and lost to Rockmart in the state semifinals.
Despite that heavy roster turnover, though, the Cavaliers have put together one of the best regular seasons in school history.
Callaway’s lone loss, which was by a 10-7 score, came against an Opelika team which is 10-1 and in the second round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs in Alabama.
Since that game, the Cavaliers have been breezing.
The Cavaliers have outscored their opponents by an average score of 41-9.
Callaway has an explosive offense capable of beating teams with the run or the pass, and the defense has been suffocating.
Callaway has given up 92 points, and nearly half of those came in a 56-45 victory over Troup.
The Cavaliers head into the playoffs on the heels of three straight shutout victories, and they’ve allowed seven points in their past four games.
“You look at the number of players we had to replace on defense, and the guys we have to replace on the offensive line, and how many seniors we had to replace from last year’s team, and early on in the year we had significant injuries,” Wiggins said. “So I think that this season it’s a testament to the players’ work ethic, their belief in what we do, and I think it also says a lot about our coaching staff.
“Our coaches work so hard on and off the field to make these guys better. I think that shows on Friday night. I think it shows each week, and we feel like we’ve gotten better through each game. I think that’s what makes a special football team.”
Offensively, the Cavaliers have been unstoppable for most of the season.
Junior quarterback Demetrius Coleman has had a phenomenal season, completing 89-of-158 passes for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Coleman has spread the ball around, with Jacob Freeman, Antinez Blount, Jymere Jones, Jalin Shephard and Markus Morman all catching touchdown passes.
Callaway also just happens to have one of the state’s best running backs in senior Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby, who plans on signing with Auburn.
Bigsby, who has missed a handful of games with an ankle injury, has 864 yards on 76 carries with 14 touchdowns.
Junior Charlie Dixon has done a terrific job of filling in for Bigsby at running back.
Callaway’s offensive line that features three new starters has been extremely effective, helping open holes for the running backs and giving Coleman time to throw.
The two returning starters on the offensive line are Tate Johnson and Austin Thomas, and Zach Neighbors, Lathan Patterson and Jacob Miles have done a terrific job in starting roles.
Callaway’s new-look defense, meanwhile, has been exceptional since the season opener against Opelika.
Callaway’s most experienced defensive player is senior linebacker R.J. Williams, and he has come back strong in recent games after missing significant time with an injury.
A defensive line featuring Anthony Elliott, Sam Williams, Jabari Smith and Tra Stephens has been dominant, and Williams, Austin Thomas, Ladarious Williams and LaQuize Gilbert get it done at linebacker.
Returning starter Jalin Shephard is joined in the defensive backfield by Jymere Jones and Osiris Rivas, and Markus Morman and Jacob Freeman also get ample playing time in the secondary.
Sophomore Blake Eubanks gets it done as Callaway’s place kicker, and Freeman has returned a handful of kickoffs for touchdowns.
Leading the way for Callaway is a talented and committed group of seniors who have been leaders on the field and off.
“I’ve really enjoyed watching our seniors grow, and I’ve enjoyed the way they’ve been leaders in our school,” Wiggins said. “I think that’s always important. It says a lot about the character of the kids. To see them in the school building and be role models, and to read to elementary-school students, or be out in the community doing positive things, that’s what it’s all about.”
Callaway’s first-round opponent is a Chattooga team that finished fourth in Region 7-AA.
The Indians (5-5 overall) have played a challenging schedule, so they’ll be prepared to face an elite opponent.
“Chattooga has a lot of tradition. So they’ll come down ready to go,” Wiggins said. “When you get in the playoffs the pool gets narrowed so much. Every team is talented. On a given Friday night, any team can beat any team. So you have to prepare really hard, and be ready to go. There can not be mistakes. There can not be errors, because the talent level between each team once you get into the playoffs is so close. Anything can happen So, we just have to continue to work at practice and prepare like we have all year, and good things will happen.”
CALLAWAY VS. CHATTOOGA
WHAT: First round of Class AA state playoffs
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Callaway Stadium
RECORDS: Callaway (9-1 overall, 6-0 in Region 5-AA); Chattooga (5-5 overall, 4-3 in Region 5-AA)