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Cavaliers finally get their championship shot

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

On a December night at Callaway Stadium last year, the Callaway Cavaliers watched their championship hopes fade away in excruciating fashion.

Late in the game, the Cavaliers had the ball inside the 10-yard line with an opportunity to win it with a touchdown, but they came up short and lost to the Brooks County Trojans 39-35 in the semifinals of the state playoffs.

It was, unfortunately for the Cavaliers, not a new feeling.

Despite being one of the state’s most consistently successful teams for a decade, the Cavaliers had, before this season, been unable to break through and make it to the final game.

For two straight years, in fact, Callaway lost in the state semifinals in almost identical fashion.

In 2018 and 2019, Callaway had the ball deep in the opponent’s territory with a chance to score the winning touchdown, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Yet after each painful playoff loss, the Cavaliers shrugged off the disappointment, returned to work, and prepared to give it another shot.

That is the essence of sports.

Failure comes with the territory, and the successful teams and athletes find a way to use that as fuel, to take the adversity and

become better for it.

The Cavaliers have done that.

Following their latest playoff setback, the Cavaliers took a few weeks off before beginning an offseason strength and conditioning program that is a not-so-secret key to the program’s success under head coach Pete  Wiggins.

Despite an offseason that was turned upside-down because of the Coronavirus protocols, the Cavaliers still found a way to prepare, to be in a position to make it another memorable season, and perhaps at long last break through and make it to Atlanta for the championship game.

The Cavaliers have done it.

With last week’s 41-17 win over Rabun County, Callaway is one of the last two teams standing in Class AA, and it will play Fitzgerald for the state championship on Tuesday at noon.

After all those painful playoff setbacks, Callaway has made it to Atlanta, and what a testament that is to the players and coaches on this team, starting at the top with Pete Wiggins, who has done such a remarkable job leading the program since he took over in 2005.

“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 after watching his team dismantle Rabun County at Callaway Stadium. “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.”

It has not been an easy journey this season.

The Cavaliers first had to navigate their way through Region 5-AA, which featured five outstanding teams, including the Heard County Braves, who won the state title in 2018.

Callaway, despite losing to Haralson County, won the region championship after an impressive win over Heard County to end the regular season.

Callaway didn’t play in the first round of the playoffs because Banks County forfeited.

Since then, Callaway has endured a playoff schedule filled with landmines.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Class AA poll, in fact, Callaway has had to beat the state’s fourth-ranked team (Lovett), third-ranked team (Thomasville), and second-ranked team (Rabun County) to get to Atlanta.

Fitzgerald, by the way, is ranked number one according to the AJC.

Callaway beat Lovett 16-9 in a tight game, and it thumped Thomasville 34-21 and Rabun County 41-17.

This is a Callaway team that just keeps getting better and put on a clinic last week against Rabun County.

The defense made all-state quarterback Gunner Stockton look ordinary, and an offense led by quarterback Demetrius Coleman, running back Charlie Dixon and senior Jalin Shephard moved the ball with ease.

The Cavaliers are also as healthy as they’ve been all season, and they’ve managed to keep their key players out of quarantine and on the field throughout the playoffs.

It is a complete team led by 17 seniors who, strengthened by past failures, are ready for a moment that’s been a long time coming.

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

The journey to Atlanta in many ways began in 2005 when Wiggins, after serving as assistant coach for three seasons under Claude Giddens, was elevated to the head-coaching position.

Wiggins believed then, and obviously has been proven to be right, that everything was in place for Callaway’s program to thrive, and compete with the state’s top programs.

It took a few years, but once the program found its footing, there was no looking back.

The Cavaliers have been in the state playoffs for 15 consecutive seasons, and since 2008, they’ve made it at least as far as the second round of the playoffs every year but one.

The Cavaliers won their first playoff game in 2008, they made their initial third-round appearance in 2009, and in 2013 they reached the semifinals for the first time.

Since 2016, the Cavaliers have been in the semifinals four times including three years in a row, and now they’ve reached the final game, a destination that had previously proven elusive.

“It feels amazing,” said Charlie Dixon after scoring three touchdowns against Rabun County. “My heart’s beating so fast, and I can’t stop smiling. It’s the best feeling ever.”

Another one of the seniors, linebacker LaQuize Gilbert, said “it’s been so much fun” to be a part of this team, and to play alongside men that have become more than teammates.

“These guys, we’ve been through a lot,” Gilbert said. “We’ve had a lot of adversity, and I’m grateful that I got to play at Callaway with them. They’re my brothers.”

For Wiggins, getting to this point isn’t just about this team, it’s about the players who came before, who helped the program achieve this level of success.

“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.”

Getting to the championship is a big deal, and it’s a goal the Cavaliers have worked hard to achieve.

They aren’t satisfied, though.

There is one more step to take, one more achievement to unlock.

The Cavaliers want to win it all, to bring a championship trophy back to Troup County.

Standing in Callaway’s way is a Fitzgerald team that has been rolling.

Fitzgerald (14-0) has not been tested in four playoff games, and it is coming off a 24-0 thumping of Jefferson County in the semifinals.

It’ll be a showdown between two confident teams playing their best, but only one of them will be celebrating when the clock hits zero.

“Fitzgerald is very well-coached,” Wiggins said. “Coach (Tucker Pruitt) and his staff do a phenomenal job. 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. So, 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.”

Whatever happens, the players will be ready for it.

It’s unlikely they will be confronted with anything they haven’t seen before, either during a game, or during the challenging practices.

“Our coaches, they put us through every situation in practice,” Gilbert said. “When it comes up in a game, we just know how to react and play ball.”

Dixon, echoing Gilbert’s thoughts, said “we’ve seen it all. We don’t lose our focus in those kind of moments. We’ve been here. We know what to do. We know how to handle any situation.”

So it’s time to play ball, to put the shoulder pads on one last time, and try to end a spectacular season in style. One way or another, the final chapter of the story will be written on Tuesday.

“We’re the first team in Callaway’s history to make it, to go to the state championship,” said senior defensive lineman Caden Prather. “The seasons before ended in heartbreaks, and hopefully we can change that story.”