Cavaliers advance with thrilling playoff win
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The Callaway Cavaliers were pushed to the limit by the Lovett Lions, but when the clock hit zero on a frigid night at Callaway Stadium, they celebrated a thrilling 16-9 playoff victory.
Charlie Dixon gave the Cavaliers the lead with a 7-yard touchdown run on fourth down, and Jalin Shephard clinched the victory with his second interception of the fourth quarter.
After Shephard’s second pick, the Cavaliers ran two plays before time ran out, and they had a hard-earned win over a strong Lovett team that came in ranked in the top five in all of the state’s polls.
Callaway (9-1) advances to the third round of the state playoffs for the fifth straight season, and it will host Thomasville next Friday with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
“I’m proud of our kids’ effort against a really good football team,” said Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins. “We had opportunities for momentum to swing against us, but we stuck with what we were doing, and kept giving ourselves opportunities, and took advantage of some of their mistakes late and ultimately got that win.”
The game was tied at 9-9 when Shephard intercepted a pass, setting Callaway up at the Lovett 16-yard line with 2:34 to play.
On fourth-and-one, Wiggins decided to go for it, and offensive coordinator Zach Giddens called the play for Dixon, Callaway’s outstanding senior running back.
Quarterback Demetrius Coleman handed the ball off to Dixon, who powered his way through some would-be tacklers and into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.
Blake Eubanks made the extra point, and Callaway led 16-9 with 1:48 to play.
While a field goal would have given the Cavaliers the lead, Wiggins was confident in the ability of the offense to put the ball in the end zone.
“As a staff, we felt like we could make it,” Wiggins said. “So, coach Giddens made a great call, the O-line opened up a hole, and Charlie got the score.”
Dixon, who had a touchdown run in the first half as well, said his mindset before that decisive run was “nothing can stop me. Whatever you do, do not stop moving your feet. Continue to move your feet, no matter what the cost is.”
The Lions still had more than a minute to work with when they got the ball back, but Shephard snuffed their hopes out with his second interception.
Shephard also blocked an extra-point attempt early in the fourth quarter that kept the game tied, so it was quite a night for the senior.
“They were a great team to play against,” Shephard said. “Coach told us this was going to be a big challenge facing them. We were just ready to step up and take that challenge.”
Callaway had a 9-0 lead at halftime on a 28-yard field goal by Eubanks and a 6-yard touchdown run by Dixon.
Lovett got a 25-yard field goal from Lucas Hyman midway through the third quarter and a 4-yard touchdown run from Michael Hollingsworth 8:25 to play to tied it at 9-9.
Lovett could have taken the lead with the extra point after Hollingsworth’s touchdown, but Shephard flew around the edge for the block to keep the score deadlocked.
It was still tied when Shephard picked off a pass from freshman quarterback Preston Lusink, setting up Dixon’s game-winning touchdown.
“I’m really proud for those guys,” Wiggins said. “I’m proud for the work ethic, and the commitment they have to one another. They just keep finding a way to win. It’s such a great will to compete, and a will to get better each day that beats in their heart, and you see it on Friday night.”
In the first half, Callaway’s defense was the story, with junior defensive back Cameron Smith intercepting two passes to help keep Lovett off the scoreboard.
The first of those interceptions came on the game’s opening possession, with Lovett driving all the way to the Callaway 5-yard line before Smith picked off a pass in the end zone.
The Cavaliers then went on an impressive 69-yard drive that ended with Eubanks’ 28-yard field goal to give the home team a 3-0 lead with 36 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Cavaliers began their second scoring drive from their own 8-yard line after the defense forced a punt.
The big play on the drive was a 36-yard completion from Coleman to Sam Williams, setting the Cavaliers up at the Lions’ 31-yard line.
Two plays after Coleman completed an 18-yard pass to Shephard, Dixon muscled his way through the Lovett defense for a 6-yard touchdown run, and Callaway led 9-0 with 2:41 to play after an unsuccessful extra-point attempt
The Cavaliers got the first possession of the second half, but they went three-and-out, and the Lions marched 64 yards to set up Hyman’s 25-yard field goal, making it a 9-3 game with 6:21 left in the third quarter.
After another three-and-out, Lovett was on the move again, and it had the ball on the 1-yard line when Callaway linebacker LaQuize Gilbert made one of the plays of the game.
Lusink kept the ball, and he appeared to have a clear path to the end zone, but Gilbert made a phenomenal open-field tackle for a loss.
The Lions went for it on fourth down from the 2-yard line, and the Cavaliers stuffed the running play, and they still had the lead.
“I knew I had to make that play,” Gilbert said. “I knew I couldn’t let my team down. I gave it my all. That could have been my last game.”
The Cavaliers were unable to build on that momentum, and they were forced into a punting situation after picking up one first down.
Shephard, Callaway’s punter, had trouble with the snap, and he was tackled at the 36-yard line, giving Lovett great field position.
Three plays later, Hollingsworth’s 4-yard touchdown run pulled the Lions even with more than eight minutes to play, although Shephard’s block kept them from taking the lead.
The Cavaliers’ next two possessions ended with interceptions, but the Lions couldn’t take advantage of those turnovers.
Following a Wade Shepherd interception, Lovett had the ball at its own 23-yard line.
On the second play of the possession, Shephard picked the ball off at the 40-yard line and returned it all the way to the 16-yard line.
From there it was all Dixon, who carried the ball four straight times, and his 7-yard touchdown gave the Cavaliers the lead, and this time they didn’t relinquish it.
In a game where plenty wrong, the Cavaliers, as they so often do this time of year, found a way to get it done, and now they’re three wins away from a state championship.
“We can go a long way,” Dixon said. “We can win as many ballgames as we want.”