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It’s Callaway’s turn to celebrate

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

ATLANTA – They never doubted, never wavered, never questioned if their time would come.

For two straight years the Callaway Cavaliers watched their season end in excruciating fashion with heart-breaking losses in the semifinals of the state playoffs.

The players returning for the 2020 season didn’t dwell on those disappointments, rather they embraced the challenge of trying to take it a step further, of breaking through a barrier that had proven insurmountable in previous years.

“Our first three years of high school, we knocked on the door,” said Charlie Dixon, a senior running back for the Cavaliers. “This was the fourth time, and we had to knock down the wall. We decided we were going to do it.”

With Dixon doing his part, the Cavaliers made it happen.

Facing an unbeaten Fitzgerald team at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta, Callaway earned a thrilling 22-17 victory to win the Class AA state championship.

After all the close calls, the painful losses, and year after year watching another team celebrate, it was finally Callaway’s turn.

“We were talking about this in the ninth grade,” said Lathan Patterson, a senior lineman. “When it finally happened, it was just amazing. Most of us played rec ball together, and we won a championship. We said at the beginning of the year, it was our year. Everybody kept doubting us. From the Haralson County game (Callaway’s lone loss), everybody kept saying Callaway’s not even going to make the playoffs. And we got it done. It’s amazing.”

Caden Prather, a senior lineman who helped Callaway’s defense delivered another superb effort, was proud of what he and his teammates overcame this year. “

“I think this year has been the craziest year, with all the Coronavirus stuff,” Prather said. “We pushed through all the adversity. That’s the main thing we talk about is pushing through it, and we come here, and we won it. It’s special.”

Senior linebacker LaQuize Gilbert, Callaway’s leading tackler, was a starter on the 2018 and 2019 teams that lost in the semifinals.

He knows the anguish of losing, and now he knows what it feels like to be a champion.

“Losing like that two years in a row, it made us every hungrier,” Gilbert said. “We wanted it. Because of Covid-19 we didn’t even know if we’d make it here, and that made it better, too. That gave us more motivation to get this trophy, to get this state championship.”

The man in charge is Pete Wiggins, Callaway’s head coach since 2005. Wiggins has helped build a powerhouse program that has consistently competed for a state titles, and now he has a championship to add to his impressive resume.

“I’m so proud of our seniors. I’m so proud of the leadership that they’ve displayed throughout a year filled with ups and downs,” Wiggins said. “They’ve remained focused. At practice, we went to work each day to get better. I think we did that. I think we got better each day in the playoffs trying to reach that goal of the state-championship game. The character of our kids was on display today against a really good team in Fitzgerald. Congratulations to coach (Tucker) Pruitt and Fitzgerald on their season. What a great football team.”

The Cavaliers’ recipe for success, which has yielded such spectacular results during the playoffs, did not change on a postcard-perfect Tuesday afternoon on the turf of a stadium that used to be the home of the Atlanta Braves.

A driving force during Callaway’s playoff run has been Charlie Dixon, who has been unstoppable.

Dixon had nearly 600 yards in his first three playoff games, and he ran roughshod over a Fitzgerald defense that didn’t give up a point in a semifinal victory over Jefferson County.

Dixon ran for 237 yards on 27 carries, and his 69-yard touchdown run with 2:11 to play helped the Cavaliers secure the title.

“Coming into the playoffs, my coaches always told me, we’ll go as far as you can take us,” Dixon said. “So at that moment, I knew my team was really depending on me, and I couldn’t let my team down. I see it in their eyes every day. They’re hungry. They want to win, so I couldn’t let them down.”

Senior quarterback Demetrius Coleman, as has been the case since he stepped into a starting role as a sophomore, was unflappable, making plays and superbly leading the offense.

Coleman ran for 100 yards with a touchdown, and he also threw for 92 yards with a scoring pass to Carlos Billingslea.

Another key to Callaway’s playoff success has been the lock-down performance by the defense, and the players on that side of the ball were up to the challenge once again.

While a team with as much firepower as Fitzgerald is going to make some plays, Callaway’s defense got the job done and delivered another stellar effort, just as it did in the three previous playoff games.

Gilbert led the way with 14 tackles, Cameron Smith had two interceptions, and Jalin Shephard had an interception on the game’s final play.

Shephard also had a tackle in the end zone during the first quarter that gave the Cavaliers a safety and a 2-0 lead.

“My credit to the defense,” Coleman said. “They picked us up a lot. They held their ground. From day one, they did their job. They kept progressing. They were great.”

It was, as has been the case throughout the season, a true team effort, with everyone who stepped onto the field contributing.

“We play together,” said Prather, who helps anchor the defense from his position on the line. “We have a bond. We’re not selfish at all. We’re selfless. We come out here and do what our job is. Nobody cares about the individual. It’s the team effort.”

There were some tense moments late for the Cavaliers.

After Dixon’s long touchdown run and a Blake Eubanks extra point gave the Cavaliers a 22-10 lead with 2:11 to play, it looked like the game was over.

Fitzgerald wasn’t done, though.

The Purple Hurricane needed just 27 seconds to find the end zone, with Chance Gamble getting behind the defense and catching a 60-yard scoring pass from Rashad Davis, and the extra point cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 22-17 with 1:38 to play.

Kevin Alfero recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt, but Fitzgerald still had all three of its timeouts.

Callaway went three-and-out, and Shephard came through with a clutch 48-yard punt, forcing Fitzgerald to start the drive at its own 15-yard line.

Fitzgerald made it into Callaway territory, but Shephard ended the suspense with an interception at the 5-yard line, and the celebration was on.

“It feels great to be here. It’s long overdue,” said Shephard, a three-year starter. “I feel like this should be my third (state title), but everything happens for a reason. I’m just happy to have this one.”

Early on, it was Shephard and the Callaway defense setting the tone.

Fitzgerald put together a nice drive to start the game and made it inside the Callaway 10-yard line, but Smith picked off a pass in the end zone to end that threat.

The Cavaliers made it to midfield before their opening drive stalled, and Shephard’s punt was downed at the 1-yard line.

Two plays later, Gilbert exploded into the backfield and made a tackle in the end zone, and the safety gave Callaway a 2-0 lead with 1:31 left in the first quarter.

The Cavaliers took over at their 8-yard line following a free kick, and they went to work.

Dixon ripped off a 42-yard run to put the ball in Fitzgerald territory, and three plays later, Billingslea made a terrific catch while being defended by two players for a 40-yard touchdown.

The Cavaliers went for two and came up short, and they were ahead 8-0 with 10:26 to play in the first half.

Callaway was on the move again later in the second quarter when a fourth-down play failed, and Fitzgerald took advantage of that break and drove 54 yards for a David Vaughn 28-yard field goal.

With 5:20 to play in the first half, Callaway’s lead was down to 8-3.

Callaway, following a shanked Fitzgerald punt, began its final possession of the first half at the 35-yard line.

Coleman found Billingslea for a 26-yard completion, setting Callaway up deep in Fitzgerald territory.

The Cavaliers were on the 3-yard line with time for one more play in the half, and rather than attempt a field goal, the offense stayed on the field.

Coleman kept the ball, and he scored on a 3-yard run as time expired, and Eubanks made the extra point to give Callaway a 15-3 lead at the half.

After a scoreless third quarter, Fitzgerald cut into its deficit with a touchdown that was set up by a special-teams play.

Five plays after a blocked punt, Gamble scored on a 4-yard run, and the extra point cut Callaway’s lead to 15-10 with 6:16 to play.

Fitzgerald kept the momentum going with a Jarriguse Coley interception, but on the next play, Smith came through with an interception of his own at the Callaway 19-yard line.

Four plays later, Dixon took a handoff from Coleman, and he beat the Fitzgerald defense for a 69-yard touchdown run, and Eubanks converted the extra point to push the lead to 21-10 with 2:11 remaining.

Dixon lost a fumble earlier in the fourth quarter, and he was glad to be able to make up for that miscue with a touchdown.

“That was a very special moment, especially because I fumbled,” Dixon said. “I knew I had a mistake to made up for.”

Gamble’s 60-yard touchdown catch from Rashad Davis less than a minute later kept Fitzgerald in it.

The Cavaliers’ final possession after they recovered an onside kick was thwarted by a holding penalty, and they were forced to punt. Knowing that an earlier punt was blocked, Shephard focused on getting the kick off quickly, and he did.

“They blocked the last one, so it was a sense of urgency that I couldn’t take my regular drop,” Shephard said. “So, once I took that first step I knew I had to get it off, because I knew there was a lot of pressure coming.”

Fitzgerald got inside the 50-yard line, close enough to attempt a desperation pass, but it came up well short of the end zone, and Shephard ended his spectacular high-school career with an interception.

“I’m just so proud of our guys,” Wiggins said. “It’s good players making big plays in tough games. I felt like we did that. We had a lot of guys raise their play to even higher levels.”