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Seniors help lead Callaway in playoffs

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

They’ve been here before.

While for some teams advancing deep in the state playoffs is a rare occurrence, for the Callaway Cavaliers, it’s something that, at least lately, happens every year.

The Cavaliers are in the third round of the state playoffs for the fifth straight year, and they’re trying to reach the semifinals for the third consecutive season.

Many of the Callaway players who will be on the field for Friday’s quarterfinal showdown with Thomasville aren’t strangers to the state spotlight.

While experience doesn’t guarantee success, it can’t hurt

having so many players who know how to handle the pressure of playoff football.

Last week, those veteran players helped Callaway dispatch a talented Lovett team 16-9 in a hard-fought playoff game.

“(The experience) helps us,” said LaQuize Gilbert, a senior linebacker and the team’s leading tackler. “A lot of people when they get in that situation, they feel the pressure, they’re nervous. But we know if we do what we’ve got to do and play our role, and do what we’ve got to do, we’ll win.”

Gilbert is part of a gifted group of seniors who have helped the Cavaliers enjoy so much success over the years.

Many of those seniors, Gilbert included, have been contributing since they were sophomores, and they’ve been a part of 11 playoff games since they were freshmen.

“They’ve been in so many big games in their career,” said Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins. “A lot of them are three-year starters, and they’ve played against really great players, not only players on another team, but on their own team. They’ve had their hand down in the dirt against (offensive linemen) Keiondre Jones and Tate Johnson.

“On the defensive side, they’ve tried to tackle Tank Bigsby, or tried to cover Jacob Freeman, or Antinez Blount. I think that’s helped develop their skills. It’s helped develop them to be better players and be able to compete a high level.”

One of those seniors is quarterback Demetrius Coleman, who has started every playoff game since 2018 and has a 7-2 record in those games.

In last week’s win over Lovett, Coleman completed 10-of-16 passes for 150 yards, and he was 10-of-14 for 145 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Heard County that wrapped up the region championship.

Another senior is wide receiver and defensive back Jalin Shephard, who had two interceptions as well as a blocked extra-point attempt against Lovett.

Seniors Osiris Rivas (defensive back), Ladarrius Williams (linebacker), Caden Prather (defensive lineman) and Eli Freeman (linebacker) helped the defense hold Lovett to nine points last week, while Gilbert led the team with 16 tackles.

Senior linebacker Austin Thomas has been a critical member of the defense this season while also playing on the offensive line, although he’s out of action right now with an injury.

Another one of the seniors, Lathan Patterson, was a starter on the offensive line and the defensive line against Lovett, and Keshawn Suggs (tight end/defensive line) also plays a lot on both sides of the ball.

Senior running back Charlie Dixon has been the focal point of the offense late in the season, and he has nearly 500 combined yards in the past three games.

Dixon ran for 110 yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns against Lovett.

“Our seniors have been great leaders this year, through the adverse times, through the situations with the coronavirus, and the situations with losing ballgames, and moving schedules,” Wiggins said. “The seniors have continued to lead each week. They’re solid. They don’t get too high, they don’t get too low. They’re level.”

PAVING THE WAY: As seems to be the case every season for the Callaway Cavaliers, the offensive line has been a strength of the team.

“Coming into the year, we lost Tate Johnson and Zach Neighbors, two guys that were really talented at their position,” Wiggins said. “So we knew that we had some big shoes to fill, and I feel like our offensive line has progressed as the season has gone on. We’ve had injuries at that position early in the year. We had guys that had gotten a lot of reps and then were injured, so we lost a lot of experience early on. Nate Lee, Jacob Miles, (Adarian) Barnes, Kamez Hopson, (Lathan) Cheeto Patterson, and Josh Perry, those guys have all contributed greatly throughout the season. I think coach (Robbie) Adams has really done a great job with helping those guys progress, and get better against some really good competition.”

While not offensive linemen, tight ends Sam Williams and Keshawn Suggs, and fullback Amarian Copeland, have been critical in the blocking scheme.

“They’re an extension of the offensive line,” Wiggins said. “All of those guys are physical. They play hard, and they’re humble guys. They really work hard at practice, and it shows on Friday night. There’s a camaraderie between the offensive linemen and tight end and our H backs. I think that’s a big part of being successful.”

MAKING STRIDES: As the Cavaliers prepared for the 2020 season, they knew there was work to do on the offensive side of the ball.

Lost to graduation was running back Tank Bigsby, who is now starring at Auburn University, as well as the four leading receivers and two talented offensive linemen, including current Auburn Tiger Tate Johnson.

While those are difficult players to replace, the Cavaliers have continued to thrive offensively, with first-year offensive coordinator Zach Giddens leading the way.

Having an offense performing at a high level is a key reason why the Cavaliers won the Region 5-AA championship and are in the third round of the Class AA state playoffs.

It helps to have an experienced quarterback in Demetrius Coleman, as well as a gifted running back in Charlie Dixon, who has nearly 500 rushing yards in the past three games.

Senior Jalin Shephard leads the wide-receiver corps, and he has made a bunch of big plays this season.

Other receivers who have grown into their roles include Carlos Billingslea, Andrew Locke, Kevin Alfero, and Q Redding.

“Over the last four or five weeks, I feel like we’re getting stronger, and we’re progressing as an offense,” Wiggins said. “I think Zach has done a phenomenal job in his first season. It’s been fun watching him grow throughout the year. Coach (Jacob) Brannon, he really pushes our tight ends and our H backs. Coach (Andre) Johnson does a great job with the running backs, and coach (Dialleo) Burks, what a job he has done (with the wide receivers). We lost all of our wideouts from last year. We lost Jacob Freeman, Antinez Blount, Jymere Jones, and Markus Morman. All of those guys could really play, and they got so many reps and experience between those four guys. Coming into this season, we had a lot of youth, and coach Burks has done a phenomenal job with our group of wideouts. You watch those guys play, they’re not big, and a lot of them don’t look like a typical wide-out, but they work hard, and they stalk block so well down the field. I’m really proud of their physicality.”