Cavaliers back in the final four
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
This is familiar territory for the Callaway Cavaliers.
With Friday’s impressive 34-21 victory over the Thomasville Bulldogs at Callaway Stadium, Callaway has advanced to the semifinals of the state playoffs for the fifth time since 2013, and for the third consecutive season.
Callaway will host Rabun County next Friday, with the winner moving on to the Class AA state-championship game to play either Jefferson County or Fitzgerald.
Callaway and Thomasville were locked in a tight 14-14 game at the half, but the second half was dominated by the home team.
The Cavaliers scored three straight touchdowns to take a 34-14 lead and put the game away, and when the clock hit zero, the celebration was on.
“I was really proud of our guys’ effort throughout the night,” said Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins. “I’m proud of their preparation, not only this week, but the entire season, just to have the mental toughness to withstand the ups and downs that we faced.”
The game was decided in the final two quarters.
While Callaway’s defense delivered a smothering second-half effort, Charlie Dixon had two touchdown runs, including a back-breaking 97-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter that pushed the lead to 27-14.
Ladarrious Williams put an exclamation point on the victory with an interception return for a touchdown with 3:22 to play.
“The physicality that we played with in the second half, to beat a team like Thomasville, is really special,” Wiggins said. “I felt like we came out in the second half, and we were controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and I felt like we were really getting after them. With that, we got momentum, and that led to some big plays, and the guys took advantage of it.”
The outcome was still very much in doubt when the Cavaliers, after an Osiris Rivas interception, found themselves backed up to their 1-yard line, clinging to a 21-14 lead with more than seven minutes to play.
After a pair of plays netted two yards, the Cavaliers were staring at third-and-eight, and offensive coordinator Zach Giddens called a conservative play that turned into a game-changing touchdown.
Dixon took a handoff from quarterback Demetrius Coleman, and he busted through the line of scrimmage and got the right sideline and found himself with nothing but green turf between himself and the end zone.
Dixon beat the Thomasville defense for a 97-yard touchdown run, and Callaway led 27-14 with 5:46 to play. Once Dixon made a defender miss at the 20-yard line, he knew he had a chance to go the distance.
“That was a great feeling,” said Dixon, who finished the night with three touchdown runs. “It’s hard for the other team when you just keep going, keep elevating.”
While Dixon provided the offensive punch in the second half, it was the defense that delivered the knockout blow.
After Dixon’s long touchdown, Thomasville took possession trailing by 13 points and in desperate need of some sort of offensive fireworks.
Instead, it was Williams intercepting a Ronnie Baker pass at the 30-yard line, and he waltzed into the end zone for the touchdown, and Blake Eubanks’ extra point gave Callaway a 34-14 lead with 3:22 to play.
The pick six was part of an overpowering defensive showing in the second half for the Cavaliers, who put the clamps on an offense that had been putting up big numbers this season.
“We came in looking to dominate,” said senior defensive back and wide receiver Jalin Shephard, who had a touchdown catch and an interception. “We started off the first quarter amazing, and then we let them back in the game. We had to get our confidence back in the second half, and we did a hell of a job.”
Thomasville’s final touchdown came after it recovered a fumble deep in Callaway territory.
Jay Cody made a terrific one-handed catch in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown catch from Baker, and Callaway’s lead was down to 34-21 with 2:24 to play.
The Cavaliers recovered the onside kick, and they punted after going three-and-out, but the Bulldogs only had time for a few plays before time ran out.
“It’s very special (to get to the semifinals), especially for the seniors,” said sophomore defensive lineman Sam Williams. “I love these boys.”
The Cavaliers were in control in the early going, with Shephard showing off his play-making ability.
After Shephard ended Thomasville’s opening possession with an interception, he got behind the defense and caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Coleman, and Eubanks made the first of his three extra points to make it a 7-0 game with 5:51 left in the opening quarter.
Following a Thomasville three-and-out, Callaway’s offense went back to work, going 55 yards in nine plays for the touchdown.
While Coleman had a 20-yard run on the drive, Dixon did most of the damage.
Dixon had seven carries for 40 yards on the drive, including a 7-yard touchdown run with 48 seconds left in the first quarter, and Callaway led 14-0.
The Bulldogs responded with a scoring drive of their own, with Baker hooking up with Cody for a 25-yard touchdown, and the Cavaliers’ lead was down to 14-7 with 9:05 to play in the first half.
Later in the half, Baker’s 14-yard touchdown run and the extra point deadlocked the score at 14-14 with 1:25 left in the second quarter.
The Cavaliers got the ball first in the second half, and they needed less than a minute to reclaim the lead.
After Dixon ripped off a 46-yard run, he had a 6-yard touchdown run two plays later, and Callaway led 21-14.
In what would be a recurring theme the rest of the way, Thomasville’s offense went three-and-out on its first possession of the second half.
Callaway’s next four possessions ended with three punts and a failed fourth-down play, but it didn’t matter with the way the defense was playing.
The Cavaliers created some cushion with Dixon’s dynamic touchdown run, and Williams finished things off with his pick six.
As has been the case so often this season, when things are tight, it has been the Cavaliers finding a way to prevail.
“There’s nothing we haven’t seen before,” Dixon said. “We just keep having to fight, keep bringing ourselves up, and keep going.”
Now the Cavaliers are looking to advance past the semifinal round and reach the state-champoinship game for the first time.
“It’s special to get here, and we want to be the first team to get to state, too,” said senior offensive lineman Lathan Patterson.