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Decision pays off for champion Cavaliers

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

With five seconds left in the first half of Tuesday’s Class AA state-championship game in Atlanta, the Callaway Cavaliers had the ball on the Fitzgerald 3-yard line, and they could either attempt a field goal, or go for the touchdown.

At first, place kicker Blake Eubanks was sent onto the field to attempt a short field goal, but Fitzgerald’s head coach called a timeout.

During the timeout, Callaway offensive coordinator Zach Giddens huddled with head coach Pete Wiggins and defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard, and they decided to go for it.

“When we sent them out there and they tried to freeze us, that gave us a little more time to kind of evaluate the situation and see what we needed to do,” Giddens said. “Me and coach Wiggins and Dusty talked, and we made a decision that this could be huge.”

That decision paid massive dividends.

Quarterback Demetrius Coleman took the shotgun snap, and he kept the ball and scored as time expired in the half, and Blake Eubanks made the extra point to give Callaway a 15-3 lead.

While it got a little tense late, Callaway hung on for a 22-17 victory to win the first state championship in the history of the program.

The Cavaliers may have still won if Coleman had been stopped short of the end zone, but there’s no doubt that was one of the most crucial plays of the game.

“Their free safety came down when Demetrius tucked it and went for his ankles, and if he would have gotten his ankle he would have been down at the one, and time would have been gone. That’s the risk you take,” Giddens said. “You’ve got to roll the dice a little bit in that situation. It’s the attacking mindset to try to win the game.”

Knowing that Coleman was at quarterback helped the Callaway coaches make the decision to go for the touchdown.

“You know whatever he’s going to do, he’s going to make a good decision, and he kind of understands,” Giddens said. “He’s been playing it for three years. You know he’s going to make the right decision.”

Coleman, who became the starting quarterback late in his sophomore season, finished his high-school career with a 10-2 playoff record.

“He’s just so competitive,” Giddens said. “He wants the football, whether it’s throwing it or running it. When he doesn’t get the football, he’s waiting on his opportunity or his chance to get it. I’m so proud of him.”

Coleman got plenty of chances to make plays against Fitzgerald.

Coleman completed 5-of-10 passes for 92 yards, and he threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Carlos Billingslea.

Coleman also did plenty of damage with his legs, running for 100 yards on 14 carries with the touchdown.

Coleman’s first two seasons as a starter ended with heart-breaking losses in the state semifinals.

Callaway lost to Rockmart 28-22 in 2018, and it fell to Brooks County 39-35 a year ago.

In both of those games, Callaway’s offense had the ball late inside the opponent’s 10-yard line with a chance to win it, only to be denied.

“We could have laid down after last year, but we got back up,” Coleman said.

While many of Callaway’s key players from that team returned, including Coleman, there were some key losses.

Most notably, Callaway lost all-state running back Tank Bigsby, as well as the four leading wide receivers.

Yet this was the team that broke through and won it all after so many close calls.

“This is a team,” Coleman said. “Nobody’s bigger than anybody else. Everybody’s equal.”

From an offensive standpoint, Callaway relied heavily on Coleman, as well as senior running back Charlie Dixon.

Those two players did a lot of the heavy lifting against Fitzgerald.

While Coleman made plays throughout the game, Dixon ran for 229 yards on 27 carries with a 69-yard scoring run.

Junior wide receiver Carlos Billingslea also had a big day with two catches for 68 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown, and Andrew Locke had three receptions for 24 yards.

The offensive line was exceptional as always, making sure Dixon had plenty of running room, and that Coleman had time to throw.

Callaway’s first offensive points came early in the second quarter. Billingslea got behind two defenders, and he made a terrific diving catch for a 40-yard touchdown on a perfectly thrown pass by Coleman.

Leading 8-3, Callaway scored again on Coleman’s touchdown run to end the half.

Billingslea got that drive started with a 26-yard completion, and Coleman had a 15-yard run to the 3-yard line, setting up the dramatic final play of the half.

After Fitzgerald scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to get within five, Dixon showed off his big-play ability .

After a Cameron Smith interception, Callaway had the ball on its own 19-yard line.

Dixon had runs of four, three and five yards to get a first down, and the Cavaliers had the ball on the 31-yard line.

On the next play, Dixon took a handoff from Coleman and raced down the left sideline for a 69-yard scoring run, and Eubanks’ extra point pushed the lead to 22-10 with 2:11 to play.

There was some suspense late.

Fitzgerald hit on a long touchdown pass to get within five, and after recovering an onside kick, Callaway was unable to get a first down.

Fitzgerald got one last shot, but its hopes ended when Jalin Shephard intercepted a pass at the 5-yard line as time expired.

While there were a few hiccups for Callaway’s offense, it was nonetheless an impressive showing against a Fitzgerald defense that had been dominating teams.

Fitzgerald was coming off a 24-0 win over Jefferson County in the semifinals.

“We started rolling at times, and there was always something,” Giddens said. “It seems like at times we were finding our groove and moving the sticks, and all of the sudden something would happen. I thought Fitzgerald did at times took advantage of those opportunities, and they stayed in there and kept fighting. They had a lot of fight about them. They didn’t want to make it easy on us for sure.”

Callaway faced nothing but stout defenses throughout the playoffs.

After winning by forfeit in the first round against Banks County, Callaway beat Lovett, Thomasville, Rabun County and then Fitzgerald. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, those were the top four teams in Class AA.

“Going into every week, you knew you were getting into a war,” Giddens said. “It makes it that much more special and rewarding when you go and play Lovett, and Thomasville, and Rabun, and then Fitzgerald to top it off. It was so much fun. I just felt like they were great football games, too.”

Giddens, a first-year coordinator who replaced Matt Napier after he left to take the head-coaching job at LaGrange, was grateful for the support he received from his fellow coaches on offense.

That group includes offensive-line coach Robbie Adams, wide-receivers coaches Dialleo Burks and Joe Cameron, tight-ends coach Jacob Brannen, and running-backs coach Andre Johnson.

“I appreciate coach Burks, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate coach Brannen, and coach Adams, and coach Johnson, all of them,” Giddens said. “They’ve done a really good job of buying in and coaching their kids hard. I just can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done for our program and our team and our offense.”

For Giddens, the state title was particularly meaningful considering his father, Claude Giddens, was in the stands to watch the Fitzgerald game.

Giddens was the head coach at Callaway from 2002 to 2004, and he was replaced by Wiggins, who has been the head coach ever since. The two have a close relationships, and Claude Giddens was a coach at LaGrange High while Zach Giddens was a quarterback there.

“It was pretty special, just seeing him there,” Giddens said. “We had conversations and we talk all the time. Just looking back on everything, it’s really special.”