Grangers earn thrilling win in regular-season finale
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
What a night, what a win, and what a moment for a team and a program that hasn’t had much reason to celebrate in recent years.
The LaGrange Grangers headed into Thursday’s regular-season finale against Hardaway having already accomplished so much this fall, but they wanted more.
The Grangers knew that if they could beat the Hawks, and hold them to 20 or fewer points in the process, they’d have a chance to finish second in Region 2-AAAA and host a home game in the state playoffs.
LaGrange’s hopes of making that happen came down to one play.
After the Grangers took the lead on a Kale Gibbs touchdown run and a Micah Prophett extra point with four minutes remaining, the Hawks marched down the field and got into position to attempt a game-winning field goal.
With less than 10 seconds left, Danilo Mendez sauntered onto the field to try a 23-yard field goal that would give his team a two-point win.
The snap was on target, and the hold was just right, but LaGrange’s Montavious Martin raced around the edge and blocked the kick, ending Hardaway’s hopes and making sure it would be a winning night for the home team.
LaGrange ran two kneel-down plays to put the finishing touches on a 20-19 victory and wrap up a remarkable turnaround regular season.
After winning a combined six games from the 2016 to 2019 seasons combined, the Grangers (7-3 overall, 6-2 in Region 2-AAAA) have surpassed that win total this year alone, and they’re headed to the state playoffs for the first time since 2014.
If Carver beats Troup on Saturday, LaGrange will finish second in the region and it will host a playoff game next week.
If Troup wins, LaGrange will finish third in the region and will be on the road for its playoff opener.
Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, LaGrange’s dramatic win over Hardaway will no doubt be one that will always hold a special place in the hearts of the players.
Hardaway (6-3 overall) came into the game still in contention for the region title with just one region loss, and that came to unbeaten Carver.
“Like I told them at the end of the game, you’ll remember this for the rest of your life,” said Matt Napier, LaGrange’s first-year head coach. “We felt like we had a good football team. To come out and be able to show what we showed tonight, it speaks a lot about these kids. I’m proud of them.”
It has been a difficult time for the Grangers, who are grieving the death of teammate Trae Cole, who was killed in a car wreck last week.
Two days after that tragedy, LaGrange hung tough but lost to Troup 14-7. One week later, the Grangers found themselves in another hard-fought game, but this time they found a way to walk away with the win.
“It’s an overwhelming situation,” said Gibbs, who has had a monster senior season with close to 1,500 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. “All you can do is smile at that point. We lost a teammate, and when things like that work in your favor, it just really feels like there’s a higher power working, and he’s watching over us, and making sure we did great.”
The Grangers were trailing 19-13 when Gibbs scored on a 12-yard run with four minutes remaining, and Prophett split the uprights on his extra-point attempt to give his team a 20-19 lead.
Hardaway, with the help of a 65-yard completion from DJ Lucas to Jordan Moultrie on a fourth-down play, drove down the field and gave itself a chance to win the game, but Martin’s block saved the day.
It was the second kick LaGrange blocked in the game.
In the third quarter, Kobe Jones blocked an extra-point attempt, and that was critical in a one-point game.
“We talked about that being a difference-maker for us, and we were hoping it would work out,” said Napier, who felt the Grangers would have a chance to block a kick. “Coach (Ben) Thrasher, he saw it, and he knew there’d be an opportunity for us to make a play.”
It was a team effort.
The special-teams play was exceptional. Not only were there two blocked kicks, but Prophett made two field goals as well as an extra point, and freshman Parker Shattuck did an exceptional job punting while also running for a first down on a fake-punt attempt.
Offensively, LaGrange got a 53-yard touchdown pass from Jaylan Brown to Jones, and Gibbs had a big night that was highlighted by his 12-yard scoring run.
LaGrange’s defense also rose to the occasion.
After the Hawks scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter, the Grangers made three crucial stops.
“It was amazing,” Jones said, summing up his feelings on the win. “That was just a great effort by everybody. Everybody stepped up and played their position, did what they needed to do to get the win.”
The win was even more impressive considering the Grangers were short-handed, with a number of key players missing because of quarantine procedures or injuries.
“It’s something special,” Napier said. “We found out today we lost another kid. The amount of adversity we’ve had to endure is tremendous, with the injuries, and guys out, and it tells you a lot about these kids’ character, and their fight. They don’t give up, and they continue to fight no matter what’s going on.”
The Grangers jumped out to a 10-0 lead on the Hawks.
On LaGrange’s second possession, Gibbs ripped off a 36-yard run, and that set up a 21-yard field goal by Prophett to give the home team a 3-0 lead with 2:18 left in the first quarter.
Moments later Tae Snead came through with an interception, setting the Grangers up near midfield late in the first quarter.
Three plays later on third-and-long, Jones got behind the Hardaway defense, and Brown dropped the ball right into his hands for the 53-yard touchdown, and Prophett’s extra point gave LaGrange a 10-0 lead with 11:10 left in the first half.
Hardaway’s high-powered offense came to life on the ensuing possession, and Jordan Moultrie’s 12-yard touchdown run and the Mendez extra point cut LaGrange’s lead to 10-7 with 4:57 to play in the first half.
The Hawks made it to the Grangers’ 30-yard line on their next possession, but the first half ended on an incomplete pass in the end zone.
The Grangers got the ball first in the second half, and they went to work.
Gibbs had a 38-yard run to put the ball in Hardaway territory, and Brown completed a 13-yard pass to Asa Leath.
The drive stalled, but Prophett’s 36-yard field goal gave LaGrange a 13-7 lead with 9:23 to play in the first half.
The Hawks, who’d moved the ball well on their final two possessions on the first half, kept it going in the second half with two straight touchdowns.
The first of those two second-half touchdowns came on a 5-yard touchdown run by Moultrie, and Jones blocked the extra-point attempt, and the game was tied 13-13 with 6:01 left in the third quarter.
After a LaGrange punt Hardaway’s offense kept rolling, and Moultrie’s 26-yard touchdown run gave his team a 19-13 lead.
Martin had an interception on a two-point attempt, so Hardaway’s lead was 19-13 with 2:22 to play in the third quarter.
The Grangers had to punt on their next two possessions, but a defense that had been struggling made back-to-back stands to keep the deficit at a manageable six points.
LaGrange began what turned out to be the game-winning drive at the Hardaway 40-yard line following a punt and a 15-year unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
After runs of nine yards and three yards by Gibbs, Brown’s 16-yard keeper put the ball on the Hardaway 12-yard line.
On the next play, Gibbs took a handoff from Brown and raced nearly untouched into the end zone for the 12-yard scoring run.
“I love just being able to do that for my entire team, and not just for myself,” Gibbs said. “It’s a great feeling.”
The Grangers still needed the extra point to take the lead, and Prophett took care of that to make it a 20-19 game.
The Hawks weren’t done.
Hardaway was facing a fourth-down situation when Lucas dumped a short pass off to Moultrie, who shrugged off a tackle attempt and raced 65 yards all the way to the LaGrange 10-yard line.
Once again LaGrange’s defense was up to the challenge, keeping Hardaway out of the end zone to force the fateful final field-goal attempt.
Moments later, the Grangers savored a thrilling win.
“It shows how hard we’ve all been working,” Gibbs said. “Everybody’s been willing to work hard, and it’s finally paying off, and all you can do is laugh and smile, but we’re not done yet.”