by Christopher Dunn
Marist introduced Sandy Creek as the “Warriors.” On the scoreboard, they thought the logo was a Trojan. By the end of the night, Sandy Creek made sure the War Eagles will remember not to disrespect the Patriots again. They took all of Marist’s best punches as they fell behind 17-0 after one half, but the Patriots did not get discouraged. They know about the brothers they have beside them, and they battled for each other, clawing back to force overtime where they sealed up a 23-20 win.
“They just played their butts off. We’re so proud of them,” said head coach Chip Walker. “(Marist) is a great football team and a great football program, and at halftime our guys could’ve easily said it’s over, but that ain’t the heart and soul and character of this football team. They came back and played about as good a half as they could have.”
This team knows they are good, and they expect to win every Friday night.
“When Sandy Creek players walk out on the field, they think they’re going to win every time,” said Walker. “It doesn’t matter if they’re playing a great program like Marist, our guys feel like they’re going to win.”
The contrast between the two halfs could not have been any more stark. Marist simply controlled the game early on, stringing together a 65-yard scoring drive on their opening possession while burning five minutes off the clock. A 5-yard touchdown run made it 7-0.
Sandy Creek tried to answer with their best drive of the half. Bryant Walker and Kaleb Slaughter connected twice as they hit midfield. Walker appeared to hit Javan Hawes along the sideline with Hawes getting his feet in bounds, but the officials disagreed, and the drive stalled.
Marist picked up right where they left off, gashing the defense for 39 yards on their next play. The Patriot defense looked like they had a stop when the War Eagles settled up for a 30-yard field goal, but the drive would reignite with a running-into-the-kicker penalty. Rather than accept the three points, Marist went for it on 4th and 1, converting to get inside the 10. Despite a Nathan Brown tackle in the backfield, Marist would recover and score on a 7-yard run to cap off a 85-yard drive for a 14-0 lead with 7:45 left in the half.
Neither team could find their footing over the following possessions, Sandy Creek going three and out twice. Marist padded their lead with surprising proficiency through the air at the end of the half, driving down to kick a 19-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead at the buzzer.
As poorly as the first half went, the Patriots were not discouraged. Walker said they made zero adjustments in the locker room, confident that they were already set up to win if they played their game.
“All we did was go in there and talk about what we needed to do,” said Walker. “I told the offense if we come out on the first drive and get down the field and make some big plays, you’re going to give the defense a reason to get excited. That’s exactly what took place, and our defense played lights-out in the second half.”
The Patriots came out of the break a completely refreshed team. Limited by an ankle injury, Jaelen Greene gutted it out in the second half, giving his team just what it needed, rumbling for 44 yards on the first snap of the half.
“He was the spark right at the beginning of the second half,” said Walker, though he had Marvin Hubbard, he was without Drezyn Parson. “That’s the thing about all three of them backs, there’s been a different game where each one has been the spark. That’s why they’re such a good group together.”
The possession looked like it would go nowhere when Walker was sacked on 3rd down, then his pass fell incomplete on a 4th-and-14 attempt, but a roughing-the-passer call gave them new life.
The Patriots took advantage of the attacking War Eagles in the red zone, Walker faking a handoff to get the defense surging right and rolling out to his left. He hit fullback Carlos Christian in stride, Christian plowing through the defense for a momentum-shifting 10-yard touchdown to slice the gap to 17-7.
The fact that it was Christian making the play was a surprise in itself. Sandy Creek has leaned on Eric Woods, one of the county’s most underrated weapons, at fullback all year, but he left the game for good with an injury on the first drive. Christian spent all week working with the scout team prepping the defense all week and did not take a single snap with the offense. No matter who is in, they find a way to succeed through dedicated players and prepared coaches.
“I can’t say enough about these kids and this coaching staff,” praised Walker. “We’ve got as good a coaching staff as anybody in the state of Georgia. They do such a good job.”
The defense answered the call time and again in the second half, forcing two straight three and outs. While the option attack gave them fits early, the Patriots were ready now. They had seen everything Marist had to throw at them already. Nathan Brown, Taylor Hodge, Nick Fulwider, and Colby Warrior held the line, and TJ Peavy, Herbert Washington, Demetrius Worthy, and Jackson Bylsma swarmed from the linebacker spot as they shut out the War Eagles in the second half.
“Anytime you play an option offense, that’s one of the things that happens the more you see it. We really were hoping it would slow down after a series, not a whole half,” noted Walker. “We came out and gave the defense a reason to play a little harder, and it kind of snowballed from there. Our defense has improved all year long. That first half wasn’t really an indication of how good they’ve played.”
The offense kept moving, putting together what they thought would be a long scoring drive, Walker twice hitting Hawes for first downs, and Greene adding a 38-yard run. It would all be for naught when a War Eagle busted through the line on a 24-yard field goal attempt and smothered the kick.
Rather than let their heads drop, the Patriots answered immediately. Marist bobbled their next snap, and Mychael Jenkins pounced on it to set the offense up inside War Eagle territory.
Marvin Hubbard sprinted for nine yards as the game ticked into the fourth quarter. A dropped touchdown pass would not stop the Patriots, Greene pounding ahead for 8 yards on 3rd and 4, then punching it in for a 9-yard touchdown to pull his team within 17-14 with 10:37 to play.
The defense stood tall again, even as Marist drove 60 yards and into the heart of Patriot territory. Facing 4th and 3 at the 21, Taylor Hodge penetrated into the backfield and forced an incomplete pass to keep his squad alive.
Sandy Creek went for it all on the first play, Walker bombing it over the top to Hawes for 45 yards. Hubbard took it for 13 yards on the next play, and Walker added 12 more with a completion to Slaughter. The drive bogged down in the red zone, setting up a 23-yard field goal attempt.
It was special teams that undid the Patriots in the playoffs last year, but not this time. One of the most improved players in the county, Benjamin Rutland drilled the kick to tie the game at 17-17.
“Against Bainbridge last year, we missed two field goals inside the 7 yardline. For us to come back this year to Marist and kick one from about the same place and for him to make that thing after he’d already had one blocked, it just showed his character,” said Walker of Rutland.
Marist got their chance to try to end the game in regulation, starting at their own 22 with 1:28 left. They would push just past midfield, but have to settle for an incomplete hail mary attempt as time ran out.
Sandy Creek won the coin toss, electing to go on defense first. Starting on the 15, the War Eagles plowed ahead for a first down before the Patriots defense stiffened up again. Colby Warrior surged into the backfield for a huge 5-yard loss, pushing Marist into a 3rd and Goal from the 8. They would get only four back and settle for a 23-yard field goal and a 20-17 lead.
The Patriots wasted no time landing the knockout blow. On the second play of their possession, Walker faked the handoff and rolled out to his left again. Seeing his first read covered, he unleashed a missile to tight end Parker Mallett. He threaded the needle through a rapidly closing window, Mallett corralling the sliding 14-yard touchdown catch just past the diving defender. As soon as the officials raised their arms signaling touchdown, the Patriot sideline emptied onto the field in exultation.
“It was the exact play where we had thrown that touchdown earlier and he hit the fullback,” noted Walker. “They covered the fullback, and so he found the tight end dragging across, which tells you that your quarterback is doing the right things. He’s making the right reads and making good decisions.”
Walker finished the night completing 8 of 20 passes for 124 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Javan Hawes was his leading receiver, catching 3 passes for 73 yards. Jaelen Greene did all his damage in the second half, piling up 132 yards and one score on 16 carries.
Sandy Creek enjoyed the win for the rest of the night, but now it’s back to work. They will travel to face Cairo in round two.
Starr’s Mill uses huge fourth quarter to beat Veterans 38-17
by Dylan Hynson
The Starr’s Mill Panthers played in their first home playoff game in six years last Friday night and were hungry for a win. The Panthers made a few key plays go their way which led to a 38-17 victory over the Veterans Warhawks in the first round of the GHSA state playoffs.
“Overall, we played a good game all around,” Starr’s Mill head coach Chad Phillips said. “Our offense did what we needed to do, the defense played really well today, and our special teams forced two huge turnovers.”
The Panthers opened the game by winning the coin toss and electing to get the ball on offense first, something that has usually lead to points on their first possession. However, the Panthers struggled to move the ball on the opening drive and were forced to punt. The Veterans offense was opposite of the Panthers as Amarrian Brown took the second play of the drive 81 yards for an early score to give the Warhawks a 7-0 lead.
“We had a good defense called,” Phillips said. “We just missed three tackles and let him take off. It’s something that has happened in the past, but I’m glad we responded well afterwards.”
The Panthers got rolling on their next series as Cole Gilley broke free for a 61-yard touchdown run to tie it up at 7-7. The Panther defense also erased their early mistake and forced a punt from the Veterans offense, which included two deflected passes against a prolific passing attack.
“The kids really responded well to (Gilley’s) touchdown,” Phillips said. “They got some momentum from it and answered the call on defense.”
The defining moment of the first quarter came after a three and out from Starr’s Mill. Starr’s Mill punted it away and immediately got it back after Carson Walter knocked the ball out of the punt returner’s hands, setting the Panthers up at the 12-yard line. Joey DeLuca capitalized on the turnover with an 8-yard run two plays later, giving the Panthers their first lead of the night with 1:26 to go in the first quarter.
The score changed quickly in the second quarter. Kaiman Smith took a sweep 13 yards for a Warhawk score, tying the game at 14-14 with 9:03 left in the second quarter. On Starr’s Mill’s next drive, Khalen Sims found a hole and ran for a 35-yard pickup to put the Panthers inside the 15-yard line. Veterans came up with the stop, forcing a Michael Lantz 30-yard field goal to make it 17-14 Panthers with 6:18 left in the half.
Both teams went three and out on their next possessions as the clock continued to run down. The Panther defense surrendered a big run to Brown again, but didn’t allow the big play to hurt them and forced the punt, something Phillips hoped to see out of his defense.
“That was the talk before the game and during the week with us,” Phillips said. “When we give up a big play, we’ve got to come back with more emotion on the field, and I thought they did a great job all night of that.”
The final drive of the half almost saw Starr’s Mill get back on the scoreboard, as Gilley found running room with no time left. However, Veterans finally tackled him around the 20-yard line and kept the score 17-14 at halftime.
“We knew we weren’t going to have time to run another play,” Philips said. “I thought Gilley did a great job not getting out of bounds and at least trying to score.”
The second half started out with a bang as Ryan Cockes picked off a Leyton Pinckney pass and returned it to the 2-yard line. There was a question whether or not Cockes scored on the play, but it was quickly forgotten as Gilley ran in his second touchdown of the night to give the Panthers a 10-point lead.
“That was a critical play for us,” Phillips said. “We had zero turnovers tonight and that helped because we forced three, and in a playoff game it sometimes comes down to turnovers.”
The offenses for both team had trouble moving the ball in the third quarter until Veterans began to move the ball late. The Warhawks converted third down after third down until a dropped pass forced a field goal which barely snuck over the crossbar. Veterans now trailed 24-17 with 1:44 left in the quarter.
The second defining moment off a punt came a few minutes later as the fourth quarter began. With the Panthers punting it away, one of the Veterans defenders would have the ball bounce off his helmet, and the Panthers fell on it, getting the ball back at the Veterans 8-yard line. Gilley powered the ball into the end zone three plays later and gave the Panthers a 31-17 lead with 9:30 left in the game.
“The muffed punt was the game-changing play for us,” Phillips said. “It changed the whole course of the game because it was a one score game, and we made it a two score game and basically put it further out of reach for them.”
The Panther defense came up big as they did all half, forcing a punt from the Warhawks on their next series. The Panthers got the ball back on Veterans 43-yard line, but instantly faced a critical fourth down. Gilley took the handoff and spun his way for a first down with 6:22 remaining to keep the drive alive. A few minutes later, Gilley scored for the fourth time on a 17-yard run to finish off the game for the Panthers with a 38-17 victory, their first home playoff win in six years.
“It’s so important for these guys to win a game at home in the playoffs,” Phillips said. “And now we get to play a second-round game here as well, and we haven’t had many second-round games at home in our history.”
The Panthers survived the challenging task Veterans gave them last Friday night, but now look forward to a tough matchup against the Kell Longhorns. While the game will take place at Panther Stadium, Starr’s Mill will have all it can handle against a state powerhouse in Kell. Kickoff is Friday at 7:30 p.m.