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Painful ending to special season

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

A journey that began in January came to a painful conclusion for the Callaway Cavaliers.

Callaway, hoping to reach the state-championship game for the first time, instead lost to Brooks County 39-35 on Friday night in a memorable, thrilling semifinal showdown at Callaway Stadium.

For the Cavaliers, it was an all-too familiar feeling.

Callaway’s 2018 season came to a close in the Class AA state semifinals when it was unable to put the ball in the end zone after getting inside of the Rockmart 10-yard line in the closing moments.

After an unsuccessful fourth-down play, Rockmart ran a few kneel-down plays and ran out the clock on a 28-22 victory.

Flash forward a year and Callaway found itself in the same situation.

Trailing by five points, Callaway had the ball inside the Brooks County 10-yard line trailing by five with a chance to score the winning touchdown.

Would the story have a happier ending this time around?

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, it wasn’t meant to be.

After a fourth-down pass fell incomplete, the Trojans took over and picked up one first down to end the suspense and advance to the Class AA state-championship game against Dublin.

For Callaway, it was a heart-breaking conclusion to another enormously successful season under head coach Pete Wiggins.

The Cavaliers were in the semifinals for the fourth time since 2013, but they’re still trying to reach a state-title game for the first time.

The Cavaliers rallied from a 20-0 first-half deficit to take the lead in the second half, but it was the Trojans rallying for the win.

Despite the tough way the season ended, Wiggins has great appreciation for the effort the players have given, and for the way they fought back after the poor start against Brooks County.

“Any time you’ve got a group of guys that are willing to pay the price, that are believing in what they do, and believing in one another, and when you’re down three scores and those guys stick together and keep battling, I think that’s a great testimony to what kind of kids they are, and I think it’s a great testimony to our program,” Wiggins said on his coaches show on Monday night. “Yeah, we came up short, but I know there’s a lot of other schools that wish they were in our place, too. Once again we’re in the final four, and we’ve been here a bunch of times, and I’m proud of the effort, I’m proud of the work that our kids have put in to get us in an elite group of people.”

It was the final game for a group of seniors who were a part of a program that won 47 games in four years and made it to the semifinals three times and the quarterfinals once.

“I’m really proud of our seniors, I’m proud of all the guys on our team, our coaching staffs, and the commitment that all of these individuals have toward our program,” Wiggins said.

As for the members of the coaching staff, Wiggins said “it’s their life. It’s what they do every day. They’re committed to our school, and these kids, and to one another. We’re a close group of people, and we believe in one another. We’ve been doing this a long time. It’s a great group of guys. I’m really fortunate to be in the role I’m in to have those guys around me. It’s one right after the other. It’s super high-quality people, and high-quality coaches that are devoted to our kids at Callaway High School and our community. I know the product that we put on the field is at a high level, performs at a high level year after year. Again, I want to say thank you to our coaching staff and what they put in to Callaway football.”

Callaway, after falling behind Douglass 14-0 in the first quarter of a second-round game, started off slowly once again against Brooks County.

The Trojans scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to take a 20-0 lead, stunning the home-standing Cavaliers.

Just as they did in the previous game, though, the Cavaliers shrugged off that slow start and fought back to take the lead.

It helps that the Cavaliers have a dynamic, big-play offense that can score points in bunches, and that’s exactly what they did.

Beginning with a Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby 70-yard touchdown run, the Cavaliers scored five touchdowns in the second and third quarters combined to take a nine-point lead.

Bigsby had two scoring runs, and junior quarterback Demetrius Coleman finished his extraordinary season by throwing touchdown passes to Markus Morman, Jacob Freeman and Antinez Blount.

The comeback began when Bigsby beat the Brooks County defense for a 70-yard touchdown run.

The rally was slowed by a Brooks County touchdown to make it a 26-7 game, but the Cavaliers scored twice more in the second quarter to get within five at the half.

Bigsby had a 1-yard touchdown run, and Demetrius Coleman threw a 41-yard scoring pass to Morman.

After trailing by 20 points, Callaway headed to the locker room at the half trailing 26-21.

The Cavaliers continued to march up and down the field in the third quarter, scoring twice to grab the lead.

The first possession of the second half ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Freeman, and Blake Eubanks made the fourth of his five extra points to put Callaway on top 28-26.

Callaway’s defense forced a punt, and Coleman tossed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Blount, and Brooks County trailed 35-26.

Suddenly it was Brooks County in desperate need of something, anything to get things turned around.

The Trojans got just what they needed, with Ni’tavion Burrus throwing a 45-yard touchdown pass to Devon Demaranville, cutting the Cavaliers’ lead to two points late in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers’ offense, which had been basically unstoppable for much of the night, went right back down the field, but they turned the ball over on downs when Coleman threw an incomplete pass on fourth down inside the Trojans’ 20-yard line.

The re-invigorated Trojans went 86 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, with Camron Priest finding Demaranville for a 5-yard touchdown.

The Cavaliers successfully defended the two-point try, so the Trojans’ lead was 39-35 with 8:14 to play.

Now the ball was in the Cavaliers’ court.

Needing a touchdown to secure that long-awaited spot in the championship game, the Cavaliers went to work.

The Cavaliers made their way down the field, and in a repeat of a year ago, had a fourth-down play inside the 10-yard line.

Needing close to three yards for a first down, Coleman’s attempted pass to Bigsby fell to the turf, and Brooks County had the ball.

The Cavaliers had one timeout remaining, so if they could force a three-and-out, they’d get the ball back.

On a third-down play, though, Brooks County got a first down by the nose of the football, and that was that.

The Cavaliers, who’d won 12 consecutive games before falling to the Trojans, finished with a 12-2 record.

The Cavaliers won their seventh region championship with Wiggins at the helm, and they were in double digits in victories for the seventh time since 2012 and for the fifth year in a row.

Callaway will have to replace 12 talented seniors, including Bigsby, a five-star running back who has committed to Auburn.

Bigsby ran for close to 5,000 yards during his high-school career, and whenever the Cavaliers needed a big play in the playoffs the past two years, he was usually the man to provide it.

Also leaving are four gifted wide receivers, as well as a few offensive linemen and handful of defensive standouts, including leading tackler R.J. Williams.

The cupboard will hardly be empty, though.

Among the returnees is Coleman, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards this season with close to 30 touchdowns.

Also returning is standout running back Charlie Dixon, as well as Jalin Shephard, a member of that standout wide-receiver corps and a play-making defensive back.

Many of the top players on defense will also return, so what was already a solid unit should be even better next season.

After a few weeks off, the Cavaliers will begin their offseason strength and conditioning program in January, beginning a nearly year-around process.

Callaway will open a new season in August.