Cavaliers eye first trip to championship game
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
This is a familiar place for the Callaway Cavaliers.
For the third consecutive season, and for the fifth time since 2013, the Cavaliers are one of the last four teams standing in the state playoffs.
So far, at least, the Cavaliers haven’t been able to advance past that point, and they’ll try to remedy that situation this week.
Callaway (10-1) will host Rabun County (12-1) on Friday at 7:30 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Class AA state-championship game on Dec. 29.
Callaway earned its spot in the semifinals with an impressive 34-21 victory over Thomasville last week.
It was tied 14-14 at the half, and Callaway scored three straight touchdowns to put it away and return to the semifinals.
Pete Wiggins, Callaway’s head football coach since 2005, felt the victory was a testament to the efforts of all the coaches, including offensive coordinator Zach Giddens and defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard, as well as the committed players.
“It’s the preparation, with coach Hubbard, and coach Giddens and our staff, putting so many hours into each game each week, and our kids staying focused and watching so much film and working at practice, and believing in what we do,” Wiggins said. “Their will to win is high. I’m just so proud of our boys.”
Callaway’s opponent is a Rabun County team that beat Bleckley County 27-24 in an overtime thriller to keep its season alive.
This will be the first-ever meeting between Callaway and Rabun County, and both teams are chasing their first state championship.
For Callaway, the past two seasons have ended with heart-breaking losses in the semifinals.
Callaway lost to Rockmart 28-22 on the road in 2018, and it fell to Brooks County 39-35 last season at Callaway Stadium.
In both games, the Cavaliers had the ball inside the 10-yard line in the closing moments, and on both occasions their hopes ended with an unsuccessful fourth-down play.
Jalin Shephard, Callaway’s outstanding wide receiver and defensive back, was a starter for both of those teams, and he knows all too well the feeling of walking off the field after a painful loss.
“We were very hurt last year to get so far, and then for it to be over like that,” Shephard said. “I made Osay (Rivas) and a couple of other guys a promise that we’d get back here, and we’re here.”
Callaway’s playoff journey began with a forfeit victory over Banks County, which was unable to play because of Covid-19 issues.
In the second round, Callaway was matched up against a strong Lovett team, and it was a down-to-the-wire game.
Callaway got a late touchdown run from Charlie Dixon, and Jalin Shephard came through with his second interception of the fourth quarter to secure the 16-9 win.
That win set up a third-round showdown with Thomasville, which came to LaGrange filled with confidence after two blowout playoff wins.
Callaway jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but Thomasville rallied to tie it 14-14 at the half.
The Cavaliers scored on their first possession of the second half, and they remained in control from there and won convincingly.
Dixon ran for nearly 250 yards with three touchdown runs, including one that covered 97 yards in the fourth quarter, and Ladarrious Williams had an interception return for a touchdown to put it away.
“We started off the first quarter amazing, and then we let them back in the game,” Shephard said. “We had to get our confidence back in the second half, and we did a hell of a job.”
Callaway had a dominant defensive effort that was led by a ball-hawking defensive backfield.
For the second straight game, Callaway had four interceptions.
Against Thomasville, Osiras Rivas had two interceptions, and Shephard and Williams each had one.
Callaway also controlled things near the line of scrimmage, with its defensive linemen and linebackers making plays all night.
Offensively, it was all about Dixon, who had two touchdown runs in the first half, and two more scoring runs in the second half.
In the fourth quarter, Callaway was clinging to a seven-point lead, and it was backed up to its own 1-yard line.
After two short gains, Dixon took a handoff from Demetrius Coleman, and he made a few defenders miss and ripped off a 97-yard scoring run.
Moments later, Williams intercepted a pass and raced into the end zone, and that was that.
“I was really proud of our guys’ effort throughout the night,” Wiggins said. “I’m proud of their preparation, not only this week, but the entire season.”
Wiggins praised the players for their “mental toughness to withstand the ups and downs that we faced.”
When the clock hit zero, the Cavaliers celebrated another trip to the final four, and regardless of how many times they’ve been there, it still means a lot.
Now, the players are hoping to keep it going and earn a title shot.
“It’s special (to get to the semifinals), and we want to be the first team to get to state,” said Lathan Patterson, a senior offensive lineman.
No matter what happens on Friday, the Cavaliers will be ready for whatever they’re confronted with.
“There’s nothing we haven’t seen before,” Dixon said. “We just keep having to fight, keep bringing ourselves up, and keep going.”
CALLAWAY VS. RABUN COUNTY
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Callaway Stadium
WHAT: Semifinals of Class AA state playoffs
ON THE LINE: The winner will play Fitzgerald or Jefferson County in the championship game on Dec. 29
RECORDS: Callaway (10-1); Rabun County (12-1)
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Callaway finished first in Region 5-AA and beat Banks County, Lovett and Thomasville in the state playoffs; Rabun County finished first in Region 8-AA and beat Haralson County, Model and Bleckley County in the state playoffs
OF NOTE: This will be the first-ever meeting between Callaway and Rabun County