Memorable regular season
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
What a way to put the finishing touches on a memorable regular season.
It was memorable in so many ways, and not just because of what happened on the football field.
This is the season of Covid-19, when players were lost not because of injuries or typical football-related reasons, but because of a virus that has come to dominate the conversation over the past six months.
Yet despite the challenges associated with Covid-19, and they were plentiful, the Callaway Cavaliers, LaGrange Grangers and Troup Tigers all made it through the regular season, and they all qualified for the state playoffs.
That is no small feat this season.
Coaches didn’t know from one day to the next who would be available, and who would be sidelined for weeks at a time because of quarantine procedures.
Yet they all persevered and succeeded, and that’s a credit to the coaches who had to adapt on the fly, and obviously to the players who continued to show up for work despite all the uncertainty.
The regular season ended last week with three thrilling games that had so much on the line.
LaGrange and Callaway emerged from those games victorious, while Troup lost an absolute heart-breaker after leading by 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Troup and Carver met on Saturday afternoon in Columbus with the Region 2-AAAA championship on the line, and they put on a show.
Troup led 29-12 through three quarters, but Carver scored three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 32-19.
The game was decided by a controversial touchdown that everyone has probably seen, and has their own opinion on.
On fourth down, Carver’s Devin Riles threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jaiden Credle with less than 20 seconds left in the game.
Whether Credle ever had possession, or whether he crossed the goal line, were both debatable, but the official on the spot called it a touchdown, and his was the only opinion that mattered.
It was a devastating loss for a Troup team that had to play three games in the final eight days of the regular season.
The Tigers seemed on the verge of bringing home the program’s first region championship in more than three decades, only to be denied in excruciating fashion.
“We cried, and we hugged each other, and basically (talked about) how much we appreciate those guys,” said Troup head coach Tanner Glisson. “Those guys laid it all on the line for us. There’s no bigger testament to being a coach than when kids do that for you. That speaks volumes for our program and where we are, and who we are, and the type of kids that we have.”
The loss not only denied the Tigers a region championship, but it knocked them all the way to number four in the region.
That means that Troup (6-4) will travel to Savannah on Saturday to play Benedictine, a powerhouse that won a state title in 2016.
At least the Tigers are still playing, and they’ll make the trek to Savannah armed with plenty of confidence.
This is a team, after all, that came within one play of carrying a seven-game winning streak into the state playoffs.
“It’s been a strange year,” Glisson said. “We go all the way from playing for the region championship, to going to four, and now have to go play Benedictine on the road. But, we get a chance to go play, and we’re excited about it, and I think we’re probably one of those teams nobody wants to play right now.”
LaGrange closed out its regular season with a 20-19 win over Hardaway, and that game also came down to one play.
Hardaway lined up to attempt a short field goal in the closing moments, and LaGrange’s Montavious Martin rushed around the edge and blocked the kick to preserve the one-point win.
That win, combined with Troup’s loss, gave LaGrange the number two position in Region 2-AAAA, and it will host New Hampstead in the opening round of the playoffs on Saturday.
The Grangers enjoyed a 7-3 regular season, a record that’s all the more impressive considering what the past few years have looked like.
From 2016 to 2019 the Grangers never won more than two games in a season, and they finished with a combined six wins in those four years.
LaGrange also hadn’t been in the state playoffs since 2014, and it hadn’t hosted a playoff game since 2009.
For the Grangers to enjoy this turnaround during the fall of Covid-19 is a spectacular accomplishment.
“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,” said Matt Napier, LaGrange’s first-year head coach. “They don’t give up, and they continue to fight no matter what’s going on.”
The win over Hardaway gave an emotional lift to a group of players and coaches who were struggling following the death of teammate Trae Cole the previous week.
One day after the Hardaway game, in fact, a memorial service was held for Cole at Callaway Stadium.
Senior Kale Gibbs, whose 12-yard touchdown run followed by a Micah Prophett extra point gave LaGrange the lead in the fourth quarter against Hardaway, talked about how much the win meant to he and his teammates.
“It’s just a great feeling, especially because we’ve had some hardships with the passing and loss of a teammate recently,” Gibbs said. “When things like that work in your favor, it really feels like there’s a higher power working, and that he’s watching over us and making sure that we do great.”
The objective now for the Grangers is to win their first state-playoff game since 2012, and they’re heading into the playoffs with a lot of momentum after getting a quality win over a strong team.
“It’s really showing off how hard we’ve all been working. It’s showing that everybody’s been willing to work hard, and it’s finally paying off,” Gibbs said. “All you can do is laugh and smile, but we’re not done yet.”
Like LaGrange, Callaway finished the regular season with a momentous win.
Facing the rival Heard County Braves at Callaway Stadium, Callaway dominated the second half and won 30-17 to secure the Region 5-AA championship.
The Cavaliers finished the regular season with a 7-1 record, and they’re in the state playoffs for the 15th consecutive season.
Callaway was supposed to play Banks County in the first round, but that game won’t be played since Banks County has forfeited.
Callaway will either play Pepperell or Lovett in the first round next week.
“With the predicament we were in, nobody knew what could happen,” said senior running back Charlie Dixon, who ran for 177 yards with two touchdowns against Heard County. “We’re truly honored and blessed to be in this situation.”
The Cavaliers, and they’re hardly alone in this, have been hit hard throughout the season with players being sidelined because of quarantine. Yet as they do year after year, the Cavaliers didn’t let any obstacles slow them down, and now they’re ready to make another playoff run after reaching the state semifinals four times since 2013.
Pete Wiggins, Callaway’s head coach since 2005, was all smiles after watching his team beat rival Heard County to secure the region title, the program’s eighth since 2008.
“I’m extremely proud of our 17 seniors for their leadership, for their pure determination, and just pure effort, day in and day out through one hell of a season,” Wiggins said. “The adversities that this team has faced and been able to overcome is so special. I think it’s a great testimony to what these guys are about. It’s a great testimony to their character, to their work ethic and their belief in one another, our coaches, and our football team.”
The regular season, which had ups, downs, turmoil, unpredictability, and enough stress to last a lifetime, is over, and the playoffs are about to get underway.
Just getting here is a triumph of sorts considering what this year has been like, but no one is satisfied.
The quest is to be in Atlanta the week after Christmas, playing for a state championship, and possibly bringing home the big trophy.
That goal is more realistic for some teams than others, but everyone has that same dream, which makes this time of year so special.
It’s playoff time, and in a year like no other, that’s a happy and comforting thought.