Callaway plays for spot in title game
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They’ve been here before.
For the fourth time since 2013, the Callaway Cavaliers are one of the final four teams standing in the Class AA state playoffs.
In their previous three trips to the semifinals the Cavaliers came up short, and they’re hoping to flip that script this time around.
Callaway (12-1) will host Brooks County (9-3) in the semifinals on Friday, with the winner advancing to the state-championship game to play either Dublin or Thomasville.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that, unlike their previous three trips to the semifinals, they’ll be at home this time.
“Playing at home for us is a great blessing,” said Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins. “We’ve been on the road for the other semifinal games, and to be in front of our home crowd on a familiar field is a good feeling.”
Callaway made its first-ever semifinal appearance in 2013, and it led powerful Buford at the half before losing 24-14.
Callaway returned to the semifinals in 2016 and lost to eventual state-champion Benedictine 49-10.
Callaway was back in the semifinals last year, and it dropped a 28-22 heart-breaker to Rockmart, which lost to Heard County in the championship game the following week.
“We’ve been to this point too many times,” said Jalin Shephard, Callaway’s outstanding junior defensive back. “The door’s always closing. We’re ready.”
It has already been a special season for the Cavaliers, who have won 12 in a row since a season-opening 10-7 loss to the Opelika Bulldogs.
That the Cavaliers would be here was far from a given considering how many talented and key players were lost from last year’s team.
Despite having to replace more than 20 seniors, though, the Cavaliers have once again put themselves in position to compete for a championship.
“We came into this year there were so many doubts about what the team was going to be like,” said Tate Johnson, a senior offensive lineman who has committed to Auburn. “We lost a lot of talented players from last year, and I’m just really proud of how the guys responded to that this year. We took a hit at Opelika in the first game, but we’re working so hard in practice, and it’s showing on the field. That just speaks volumes to the kind of character my teammates have and I’m just so proud of the guys.”
Preparation for the season began a few weeks after Callaway’s 2018 season ended with the heart-breaking loss to Rockmart.
Now a year later, Callaway is back in the semifinals with a chance to win a game and earn the right to play for a state title.
“It’s going to be a tough matchup Friday night, but it’s a big opportunity for us,” Wiggins said. “There’ll be a great crowd Friday night, and a big atmosphere with two teams with a lot of tradition, and a lot of good players, and teams that have been in this situation before. I think it’s how you draw up Friday nights in the semifinals. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Callaway’s dynamic, multi-faceted offense is averaging more than 40 points per game, and the defense has been doing a phenomenal job as well, giving up fewer than 13 points a game.
The Cavaliers have also played a rugged schedule that has helped prepare them for any challenge they’ll face.
“We played some teams that are well-coached. We’ve played teams with good players. I think that’s made us better each week,” Wiggins said. “That’s a big part of being successful long-term is you’ve got to get better each week, the kids have got to stay hungry, and they’ve got to want to be there. And that may sound easy, and it is easy, but when you think about a football season, we started after-school weights on Jan. 6, and it’s a long grind. I’m so proud of these boys for the growth that they’ve had since we began.”
While it has been mostly smooth sailing this season, the Cavaliers found themselves down 14-0 last week the Douglass-Atlanta Astros before rallying for a 41-20 win.
“They never got away from our plan, they never doubted what we’re doing, so I think it’s a great testimony to the character of our football team,” Wiggins said. “It’s a great testimony to our coaching staff. Nobody panicked, and we kept working, and believing in what we do, and things fell into place and kind of went like from that point on that we felt it would go. There’s a lot of good, and there’s bad. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to be better at, but I’m really proud of our team.”
Wiggins is proud of the way everyone has focused on improving from day one until now.
“For our kids to keep stepping up and finding a way to win, and finding a way to get better, says a lot about the integrity of these guys, and I think it says a lot about our coaching staff,” Wiggins said. “We believe in one another, and these guys push hard on the field and in our meetings, and in the film room. I think it’s paid off. It shows how much dedication there is toward our football program.”
With Callaway, a huge part of the story this season has been the performance of an explosive offense that can beat defenses in so many ways.
Junior quarterback Demetrius Coleman has thrown for more than 2,500 yards this season with 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions, and he’s been getting the ball to a host of gifted wide receivers, including seniors Jacob Freeman and Antinez Blount, who both have more than 30 catches.
Freeman averages nearly 30 yards a catch, and he has 11 touchdowns, including an 88-yard scoring reception against Douglass-Atlanta last week.
Blount has a team-leading 32 catches with six touchdowns, and Jymere Jones, Markus Morman and Shephard have each had big seasons catching the ball as well.
Callaway also has one of the top running backs in the country in senior Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby, an Aubn Tiger commit who has 1,366 yards with 25 touchdowns, and he averages more than 12 yards per carry.
Charlie Dixon has had a big season at running back as well, and he came up big earlier in the year when Bigsgy was out with an ankle injury.
Leading the way is an offensive line that has been doing a phenomenal job opening holds for Bigsby, and giving Coleman time to throw.
It’s a group that includes starters Tate Johnson, Jacob Miles, Zach Neighbors, Austin Thomas and Lathan Patterson, and fullback Amarion Copeland has also been a key blocker.
On defense, Callaway was almost starting from scratch after losing nine of 11 starters from last season’s team. Despite that, the defense has been a strength of the team since the opener against Opelika.
In last week’s quarterfinal game, Callaway’s defense gave up a pair of first-half touchdowns before putting the clamps on Douglass-Atlanta.
It was a particularly impressive effort considering one of the top defensive players, defensive lineman Anthony Elliott, was out with an injury.
Callaway’s defense struggled a bit in the previous playoff game against Fitzgerald, and defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard was looking for a better effort against Douglass.
“We felt like we needed to play a little better than we did last week. We got on them,” Hubbard said. “They answered the bell. I’m really proud of them.”
The starters against Douglass-Atlanta included Keshawn Suggs, Sam Williams, Jabari Smith and Trey Stephens on the defensive line.
R.J. Williams, Charlie Dixon, Ladarious Williams and LaQuize Gilbert were the starting linebackers, and Shephard, Jymere Jones and Osiris Rivas started in the secondary.
A handful of other players, including Tate Johnson, Austin Thomas, Nate Lee and Chauncey Bradford provided some key depth on a short-handed defense.
Callaway has been solid on special teams as well.
Sophomore Blake Eubanks has been nearly automatic on extra points of late, and Jalin Shephard has done a nice job when called upon to punt.
In the return game, Shephard and Freeman have both returned kickoffs for touchdowns, giving the Cavaliers yet another way to score points.