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Historic win for Cavaliers

They were not going to be denied this time.

The Callaway Cavaliers, after two heart-breaking losses in the state semifinals the past two seasons, broke through in a big way on Friday with a convincing 41-17 victory over Rabun County on a frigid night at Callaway Stadium.

Callaway (11-1) advances to the Class AA state-championship game for the first time in program history, and it will play Fitzgerald on Dec. 29 in Atlanta.

“It feels amazing,” said senior running back Charlie Dixon, who had three touchdown runs, including one that covered 76 yards in the third quarter and gave Callaway a 41-10 lead. “My heart’s beating so fast, and I can’t stop smiling. It’s the best feeling ever.”

Another one of Callaway’s star players, senior quarterback Demetrius Coleman, had a big night with a 64-yard touchdown run, as well as a 48-yard scoring pass to Sam Williams.

Coleman was Callaway’s quarterback during the 2018 and 2019 seasons that ended with those tough losses in the semifinals, so he was all smiles after helping lead his team clear that hurdle.

“It’s a great feeling, I can’t even describe,” Coleman said. “It feels great to get that win where everybody doubted us out.”

Senior tight end Keshawn Suggs, who had a sensational 41-yard catch to set up Callaway’s first offensive touchdown, said “it feels great” to finally get past the semifinal round.

“We finally kicked down that door that’s been holding us up,” Suggs said. “It’s going to be a great experience for our first time going (to the championship game).”

Head coach Pete Wiggins, who has built Callaway into a state powerhouse, felt Friday’s performance was a reflection on the work the players have put in throughout the year, dating back to the start of the offseason conditioning program in January.

“It’s the effort, and the want-to throughout our season, and there’s been so many ups-and-downs,” Wiggins said. “It’s just the continual fight in them, and the continual belief in what we’re doing, and just coming to work each day, and preparing at a high level. Also, our coaching staff. It’s so many hours they put in to developing these kids, just our practice plans, and what we do on and off the field. It’s a very special group of men.”

Under Wiggins’ direction, Callaway has enjoyed plenty of success, including four previous trips to the state semifinals.

Now, for the first time, Callaway is one of the last two teams standing in the state playoffs.

“We’ve knocked on the door for a long time, and to have the opportunity to go and play in the state championship is what it’s all about,” Wiggins said. “There’s been so much work that’s gone in to getting to this point. I’m really excited for all the former Cavaliers that’s built this tradition that we have, the expectation of winning, the expectation of success that we have on Friday night.”

Rabun County brought an impressive resume into Friday’s game.

Led by all-state quarterback Gunner Stockton, the Wildcats (12-2) were in the midst of a stellar season, but they were over-matched against the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers had a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, and they scored the next 27 points to turn a tight ballgame into a mismatch.

Callaway’s lead was so big that there was a running clock in the fourth quarter, an unusual occurrence at this stage of the playoffs.

The defense put the clamps on an explosive offense that had been putting up massive numbers throughout the season.

“The key was, to go with the game plan,” said senior linebacker LaQuize Gilbert, Callaway’s leading tackler this season. “The coaches, they coached us up, and prepared us the best they could, and we just executed the way we needed to, and we came away with the win.”

Offensively, all of Callaway’s weapons were on display.

Dixon, who ran for 236 yards in a second-round win over Thomasville, was unstoppable, particularly in the second half when Callaway’s ground game took over.

Coleman, meanwhile, outplayed his counterpart from Rabun County, a player who has committed to the University of South Carolina.

“We had to get the offense capitalizing on what our defense was doing, and we finally did that,” Coleman said. “The offense played great, the whole offense did.”

It was Callaway’s defense that put the first points on the scoreboard.

Rabun County got possession and was driving when Jalin Shephard picked off a pass on a ball that was tipped by Jarvis Parks, and he raced about 70 yards for the touchdown.

Blake Eubanks made the first of five extra points, and Callaway led 14-0 with 8:45 left in the opening quarter.

Following a Rabun County three-and-out, Callaway went to work from its own 16-yard-line.

After getting into Rabun County territory, Coleman heaved the ball downfield in the direction of Suggs, who made a fantastic catch in coverage at the 7-yard line.

“I didn’t think I was going to get it at first,” Suggs said. “I trusted myself and made a play.”

Two plays later, Dixon surged into the end zone for a 2-yard scoring run, and Callaway led 14-0 with 3:40 to play in the first quarter.

The Wildcats answered with their best drive of the night to that point, and Cesar Armenta made a 33-yard field goal to cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 14-3 with 11:19 left in the first half.

Later in the second quarter following a Callaway punt, Rabun County inched closer, with Stockton hooking up with Adriel Clark for a 20-yard touchdown, and it was a 14-10 game with 4:06 left in the first half.

With momentum going against them, the Cavaliers needed someone to step up and make a play, and Coleman rose to the occasion.

On a third-down play, Coleman took off running, and he got to the left sideline and beat the defense for a 64-yard touchdown run, and Callaway was ahead 20-10 with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter, and that was the score at the half.

The Cavaliers, after taking over near midfield after getting a nice kickoff return from Carlos Billingslea to start the second half, showed off their quick-strike ability to pad their lead.

Sophomore tight end Sam Williams got behind the secondary, and Coleman dropped a perfectly-thrown pass into his arms for a 48-yard touchdown, and Callaway led 27-10 less than two minutes into the third quarter.

The Wildcats went nowhere on their first possession of the second half, and the Cavaliers took over at their own 30-yard line after a punt.

Dixon, after jump-starting the drive with a 44-yard run deep into Wildcats’ territory, scored on a 10-yard run, and the lead was 34-10 with 5:48 left in the third quarter.

After another Rabun County punt, Dixon delivered a “Sports Center” worthy highlight.

Dixon made a defender miss at the line of scrimmage with a spin move, and he took off and outraced the defense for a 76-yard touchdown, and Callaway was ahead 41-10 late in the third quarter.

“Once I got past (the defender), I knew I was gone,” Dixon said. “I felt him grabbing, and I had to speed it up a little bit and just keep going. I couldn’t stop, couldn’t look back. Nothing could stop me.”

Dixon’s final touchdown run all but ended the competitive aspect of the game, and Rabun County tacked on a meaningless touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the game on a Stockton 8-yard scoring run.

The Cavaliers received the kickoff and time ran out, and the celebration was on.