Cavaliers preparing for championship game
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
It’s not just another week, but the Callaway Cavaliers are trying to keep things as normal as possible.
After beating Rabun County 41-17 last week in the semifinals of the Class AA state playoffs, Callaway advanced to the state-championship game for the first time in the history of the program.
On Tuesday morning, the players and coaches were on the turf at Callaway Stadium, going through the same practice routine they’ve had since the season began in September.
“We’ve tried to make this week as consistent as we could to all the other weeks of preparation,” said Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins. “Obviously it’s the state championship, and there’s much more attention on the game, but from a coaching staff standpoint, our practice routines are pretty close to the same we’ve had throughout the playoffs.”
If something is working, why change it?
Since winning its state-playoff opener against Banks County by forfeit, Callaway (11-1) has beaten Lovett, Thomasville and Rabun County to reach the title game.
Callaway’s opponent in the Class AA championship game will be Fitzgerald, and those two teams will face off next Tuesday at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta, with kickoff set for noon.
“I feel like that’s a big ingredient to being successful is just having a routine, and having a plan, and sticking with it,” Wiggins said. “That carries through the playoffs and the regular season with a pretty consistent plan. The kids, they know the expectation. They practice at a high level, and I believe that’s a big part of our success.”
The Cavaliers have earned their title shot with three impressive wins over teams that, according to one poll, were the fourth, third, and second-ranked teams in Class AA.
After the unexpected off week because of the Banks County forfeit, Callaway secured a hard-earned 16-9 victory over Lovett.
Against Thomasville, Callaway took control in the second half and won 34-21 to reach the state semifinals for the third straight year. That set up a showdown with Rabun County, and Callaway scored 27 consecutive points during one stretch to blow it open and win 41-17.
For the first time ever, and after a bunch of close calls in previous years, Callaway was in the championship game.
“A lot of people weren’t expecting us to get here,” said senior defensive lineman Caden Prather. “The years before, we had Tank Bigsby and people like that. I feel like we work together in such a great way, and we’ve been playing together since middle school and elementary school. We have a bond that just works. It’s pretty special.”
The past two years, the Cavaliers lost two heart-breakers in the semifinals.
In 2018, Callaway’s season ended with a 28-22 loss to Rockmart, and it fell to Brooks County 39-35 last year.
In both games, the Cavaliers had the ball inside the opponent’s 10-yard line in the closing moments, but they were unable to score the winning touchdown.
This time around the Cavaliers left nothing to chance.
Callaway scored four straight touchdowns to build a 41-10 lead before Rabun County scored a meaningless touchdown in the final minute.
Lathan Patterson, a senior who plays on the offensive line and the defensive line, said the idea this year was to not let it come down to the end.
“With one minute left in the game, we wanted to know that we were going to the state championship,” Patterson said. “We had to finish.”
For Wiggins, it all comes back to preparation.
“I’m really proud of our kids for their focus throughout the playoffs,” Wiggins said. “I think the preparation we’ve had on the field, and off the field, has been at a high level I think our coaches have worked extremely hard, and we feel like we’ve had good plans going into each game. But the preparation from our team is a great part of our success. We practice at high levels, and I believe the effort the kids have played with on Friday nights has reached higher levels in each game that we’ve played. We always talk about the great players find a way to play at higher levels against really good teams, and I think that our guys have done that.”
Now there are only two teams left standing, and the Cavaliers are hoping they’ll be the ones celebrating when the clock hits zero.
“You see how the seasons before ended it heartbreak,” Prather said. “Hopefully we can change that story.”
CALLAWAY VS. FITZGERALD
WHAT: Class AA state-championship game
WHEN: Dec. 29, noon
WHERE: Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta
RECORDS: Callaway (11-1); Fitzgerald (14-0)
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Callaway finished first in Region 5-AA and beat Banks County, Lovett, Thomasville and Rabun County in the state playoffs; Fitzgerald finished first in Region 1-AA and beat Oglethorpe County, Northeast, Fannin County and Jefferson County in the state playoffs