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Cavaliers get championship shot

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

The journey began more than three months ago on a September evening at Callaway Stadium, and it will end on a Tuesday afternoon in Atlanta.

The Callaway Cavaliers (11-1), who opened with a victory over Troup on Sept. 11, will put the wraps on a memorable season with a showdown against Fitzgerald for the Class AA state championship.

Those two powerhouses will clash at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta on Tuesday, with kickoff set for noon.

While the Cavaliers have enjoyed tremendous success under head coach Pete Wiggins, this is the first time they’ve made it to the final game.

Before this year, the Cavaliers had reached the state semifinals four times, and they fell short each time.

Callaway flipped that script this year.

Facing Rabun County in the semifinals last week, Callaway left nothing to chance and rolled to a 41-17 victory to earn its long-awaited title shot.

“Fitzgerald is very well-coached. Coach (Tucker Pruitt) and his staff do a phenomenal job,” Wiggins said. “They’ve got a lot of great players, explosive players, on both sides of the ball. Their special teams are really good. So, there’s a reason why they’re 14-0 and the number one team in the state. But our guys are excited about the opportunity to play, and to have the opportunity to be in the state-championship game. There’ll be many challenges on Tuesday during the game. We have to keep preparing, and when opportunity comes, we have to take advantage of it on the field, and we have to take advantage of the momentum swings, and when it goes against us, we have to be able to handle it. Obviously they have explosive players, so there’ll be those situations that we have to handle. If we’re able to do that, we should be successful.”

This has been, for Callaway and every team in the state, a season like none other because of the complications that arose because of Covid-19.

The Cavaliers had to make dramatic adjustments to their normal offseason routine, and that included the cancellation of spring practice, and a dramatically altered summer schedule.

Through it all, though, the players have continued to show up for work day after day, and they do so with smiles on their faces.

“Our guys, they enjoy playing, they enjoy coming to practice,” Wiggins said. “They enjoy watching film, and being around one another. I think that’s a very special part of our team, and I think it’s a very special part of our success right now. When you’ve worked as long as we have, and the season has lasted as long as it has and there have been ups and downs and all the challenges we have faced, these guys still enjoy being at practice, and that’s a tremendous part of being successful. It’s just the want-to, and the positive attitude that they bring, regardless of if its 38 degrees, or it’s in the middle of the day. Regardless of the situation, they bring a positive look to practice, and I think that helps us be successful.”

The Cavaliers have had one stumble this season.

On a Tuesday night against Haralson County, Callaway fell behind 24-0 in the first half, and despite a second-half rally, it lost 31-24.

The Cavaliers have been rolling since then.

Callaway followed up its lost to Haralson County with a key 41-20 road win over Temple, and it beat Heard County 30-17 in the regular-season finale to win the Region 5-AA title.

After winning by forfeit over Banks County in the first round of the playoffs, Callaway beat Lovett 16-9, Thomasville 34-21, and Rabun County 41-17.

Callaway had the Rabun County game well in hand by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, so the celebration began early.

When the clock hit zero and the Cavaliers officially had their invitation to the championship game, the players stormed the field, and they were doing flips, hugging, crying, and reveling in a moment that’s been a long time coming.

“It feels amazing,” said senior running back Charlie Dixon, who had three touchdown runs against Rabun County. “My heart’s beating so fast, and I can’t stop smiling. It’s the best feeling ever.”

Junior defensive lineman Trey Stephens was on the field for last year’s 39-35 loss to Brooks County in the state semifinals, and while he didn’t play as a freshman, he remembers all too well the 28-22 setback to Rockmart in the semifinals in 2018.

“It hurt me the most last year,” Stephens said. “Even in the ninth grade, it hurt me. I cried. I really wanted to win this one. That was two years in a row, two close games. Now we made it (to state).”

That the Cavaliers would get this opportunity was far from a sure thing when the season began.

Callaway lost so many talented seniors from last year’s team, including running back Tank Bigsby, who was named the freshman of the year in the SEC after a monster debut season at Auburn.

Yet this is the team that broke through and earned a title shot.

“A lot of people weren’t expecting us to get here,” said Caden Prather, a senior defensive lineman. “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.”

Senior Keshawn Suggs, a tight end and defensive lineman, said “it feels great” to get to Atlanta.

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

Senior linebacker LaQuize Gilbert, Callaway’s leading tackler, said “it’s amazing” to earn this opportunity, something the players have worked so hard for over the years.

“We finally broke through,” Gilbert said. “We wanted it more than ever. We’ve been thinking about it for the past two years. This year, we weren’t going to let that happen again.”

Wiggins, who has a 149-48 record since taking over as Callaway’s head coach in 2005, is happy for everyone who has helped the program reach this point.

“I’m really proud for all the guys that have been out on this practice field, have been in the weight room, have been in the camps, have played so many games to build the tradition that we have at Callaway,” Wiggins said. “There’s such a great expectation of success when we walk out on the field, regardless of the opponent. I think that we’ve played at a high level for a very long time, and we’ve had a lot of really good players. It’s the work ethic, and the time that has gone into getting to this point as a program. I’m really proud of all the players that came before, and the community that supported us. It’s such a special time for our school.”

The Cavaliers are a complete team.

Offensively, Callaway can beat opposing defenses in multiple ways. Dixon is having a big season with 1,233 yards on 189 carries with 19 touchdowns, and he has nearly 600 yards with eight touchdowns in three playoff games.

Senior quarterback Demetrius Coleman has thrown for 1,164 yards with 14 touchdowns, and he also has 400 rushing yards with three touchdowns.

Jalin Shephard is Coleman’s favorite target, and he has 24 catches for 505 yards with nine touchdowns, and Carlos Billingslea has 20 receptions for 224 yards with two touchdowns.

Leading the way is an offensive line of Patterson, Kamez Hopson, Adarian Barnes, Jacob Miles and Nate Lee.

Callaway’s defense has been strong since day one, and Gilbert leads the way with nearly 150 tackles, and he has more than 50 tackles in the three playoff games.

LaDarrious Williams and Austin Thomas have also had strong seasons at linebacker, a deep defensive line that includes starters Keshawn Suggs, Sam Williams, Stephens and Prather has been getting the job done, and a ball-hawking secondary of Shephard, Cameron Smith, Osiris Rivas and Jarvis Parks has made life uncomfortable for opposing receivers.

On special teams, Blake Eubanks has been consistent on extra points and field goals, and Shephard has done an exceptional job at punter.

Callaway’s opponent is a Fitzgerald program that is no stranger to this stage.

Fitzgerald lost in the state-championship game in 2015 and 2016, and it made it to the semifinals in 2018.

This year’s Fitzgerald team is led by a dominant defense that is giving up an average of 11 points per game and is coming off a 24-0 win over Jefferson County in the semifinals.

Fitzgerald also boasts a powerful offense that averages 37 points per game.

Quarterback Rashad Davis has thrown for 1,194 yards with 11 touchdowns, and Mario Clark leads the ground game with 1,145 rushing yards and a whopping 28 touchdowns.

It’s a veteran team that is looking to bring the program a state championship after some close calls in recent years.

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