Callaway, Rabun County meet in semifinals
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
Is the fifth time the charm?
The Callaway Cavaliers have been one of the most consistently successful teams in the state over the past decade, and on Friday night, they’ll play in their fifth semifinal playoff game since 2013.
The Cavaliers’ previous four trips to the semifinals ended with a loss, and they’ll try to flip that script on Friday night when they play the Rabun County Wildcats at Callaway Stadium.
The winner will advance to the state-championship game to play either Fitzgerald or Jefferson County on Dec. 29 at Center Parc Stadium, home of the Georgia State football team.
The task will be a challenging one for Callaway.
Rabun County (12-1), which lost in the state-championship game in 2017, will bring a strong squad to Callaway Stadium.
Led by junior quarterback Gunner Stockton, who has committed to the University of South Carolina, the Wildcats have been putting up big numbers on offense, and they’ve done the job on defense as well.
“They’re big, they’re physical, and they’ve been consistent throughout the year,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “They’ve played a lot of good football teams, so I feel like they’ve got a great front. Their tailback (Lang Windham), he’s a 1,000-yard rusher, and he’s really fast. They’ve got a great receiving corps, led by (Adriel Clark). They’re a very explosive offense, and they’ve put up big numbers each week throughout the season against really good teams.”
Stockton is the team’s unquestioned leader.
The future Gamecock has thrown for more than 3,000 yards with 44 touchdowns, and he has run for nearly 1,500 yards with 25 touchdowns.
“I’d like to sit here and tell you their quarterback’s a little over-rated, but he’s not,” said Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard. “He’s as good as advertised. His ability to run is what really scares. It’s not that he likes to scramble and make off-script plays, it’s designed runs that he really does well. When it’s a passing down and he scrambles, he looks to pass the ball downfield. He just buys time, and he has such a strong arm. When guys get 50 or 60 yards down the field, he can get it to them. He’s going to throw with a different velocity than we’ve seen all year.”
Stockton is surrounded by play-makers.
Windham has run for 1,271 yards with 12 touchdowns, and Clark has 71 receptions for 1,482 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Clark has had at least one touchdown catch in 11 of Rabun County’s 13 games, and he’s had multiple scoring receptions in eight games.
Rabun County, which won the Region 8-AA championship, has beaten Haralson County, Model and Bleckley County to reach the semifinals.
While the Haralson County and Model games were blowouts, Rabun County needed overtime to dispatch Bleckley County 27-24.
Callaway (10-1), which finished first in Region 5-AA, advanced past the first-round of the playoffs when Banks County forfeited.
Callaway outlasted Lovett 16-9 in the second round of the playoffs, and it dominated the second half to beat Thomasville 34-21 last week.
The Cavaliers have been getting it done with an offense led by senior running back Charlie Dixon, who has 1,045 yards on 168 carries with 16 touchdowns, and he has nearly 800 of those yards in the past four games combined.
Against Thomasville, Dixon ran for 237 yards with three touchdowns, including a 97-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
At quarterback, Demetrius Coleman has been starting since he was a sophomore, and this will the 11th playoff game he has appeared in.
Coleman has completed 80-of-155 passes for 1,074 yards with 13 touchdowns, and he has also run for 288 yards with two touchdowns.
Coleman’s favorite target is senior Jalin Shephard, who leads the team with 24 catches for 505 yards, and he has nine touchdowns.
Carlos Billingslea has caught 20 passes for 224 yards with two touchdowns, Kevin Alfero has eight receptions for 53 yards, and Andrew Locke and Treyon Tucker each have scoring catches.
Paving the way for the offensive success is an offensive line of Lathan Patterson, Kamez Hopson, Adarian Barnes, Jacob Miles and Nate Lee, with Sam Williams Keshawn Suggs at tight end, and Adarian Barnes at fullback.
Callaway’s defense has been a strength of the team all season, and it delivered back-to-back strong performances against Lovett and Thomasville.
Senior linebacker LaQuize Gilbert is Callaway’s leading tackler, and he had 20 tackles against Thomasville.
Linebackers LaDarrious Williams, Jarvis Parks and Kier Jackson have been getting it done, and that position group will receive a lift with the return of senior Austin Thomas for Friday’s game.
The secondary is a strength of the defense, and Jalin Shephard, Osiris Rivas and Cameron Smith have combined for seven interceptions in the past two games, while safety Jarvis Parks returned an interception for a touchdown against Temple.
Callaway has plenty of depth on the defensive line, with Caleb Woody, Sam Williams, Lathan Patterson, Caden Prather, Keshawn Suggs, Elijah Gunn, Trey Stephens and Chauncey Bradford among the players making an impact.
Special-teams play has been a strength for the Cavaliers as well.
Place kicker Blake Eubanks has been consistent on field goals and extra points, and Jalin Shephard has done an exceptional job at punter.
Like every other team in the state, Callaway has had to withstand the ups and downs of a tumultuous season, with Covid-19-related issues always on the forefront.
Yet through it all, the Cavaliers have persevered, and now they’re one victory away from playing for a state championship for the first time in program history.
“The integrity that these guys have had with the highs and lows, and just to keep coming back to practice, it hasn’t been easy,” Wiggins said. “I think their character has truly been on display each day. We’ve had several weeks where a game would be canceled, so there would be extra off weeks, and that’s always tough. Some folks like off weeks, I don’t. I want to play each Friday, and I know our kids want to. I think that helps with chemistry and being in a rhythm. We had several challenges like that, but these guys have kept it in the road, and they’ve kept leading and working in believing in each other, and believing in our coaching staff, and here we are. There are four teams left, and we’re proud of this opportunity.”
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