By Matthew Caldwell
Oconee Leader |email@example.com
North Oconee took advantage of a muffed punt and two interceptions in the third quarter to build a 27-0 lead, and the Titans defeated Sandy Creek 27-8 in the opening game of the Class AAAA state tournament.
“[The defense] played unreal. Our coaching staff has done a good job all year of putting a plan together that gives us opportunities to make plays. To see those kids go out and execute and make the plays they did tonight, it adds more confidence to that side of the ball,” said Titans head coach Tyler Aurandt. “The one thing that is very evident that whatever 11 are out there, they are playing for each other. When you have 11 guys that want to play for each other like that, great things are going to happen.”
It was the first time the Titans played a home playoff game since the 2014 season, a year they advanced to the Elite Eight for the only time in program history. It was also the first playoff game for the program since 2015.
“You get in the playoffs, there is nothing better than this atmosphere,” said Aurandt, who is in his second year with the Titans. “Playing with everything on the line and seeing how your kids respond to that, it tells you where your program is at. Our fans, we felt pretty strongly they were going to come out in big numbers and they did. They were loud. Our student section, you get here at 6 o’clock and you come out for pregame and it’s packed. We can’t be more thankful for their support and what they do to provide energy to us.”
Sandy Creek was back in the playoffs after missing the state tournament in 2017, snapping a run of 15-straight years of postseason play. The Patriots finished the season 7-4 overall.
“I thought our seniors did an awesome job. We didn’t get things done last year like we wanted to but our seniors came out and turned it around and got us back on track and got us headed around the corner,” said Patriots head coach Brett Garvin. “Like I told the team, it is up to the juniors and sophomores now to take the torch and move on to the next level.”
Sandy Creek got the ball first and got inside North Oconee territory. The Patriots starting quarterback Matthew Williams, who completed his first three pass attempts and ran the ball on three straight plays to start the game, was injured on the sixth play of the drive and left the game. He did not return.
The Patriots went on to punt on their first three drives. North Oconee had to punt on its first drive but on the second drive, the Titans found the end zone.
Ryan Coates capped a six-play, 46-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:44 left in the first quarter. The PAT by Dowis gave the Titans a 7-0 lead.
After a missed 42-yard field goal by the Titans in the second quarter, the Patriots got the ball on their own 20 with 7:37 left in the half and drove inside the North Oconee 10-yard line. On second-and-goal from the 5, a fumble was recovered by Stan Lacksen to keep the Patriots off the board with 3:45 left in the half.
“It was huge. You give them points before the half and you are going into the half and you’ve lost a little momentum,” Aurandt said. “I don’t know how many times they have done that this year, they do it over and over again, but for them to bow their neck again right before the half is huge for the psyche and the momentum when we go in there in halftime.”
North Oconee got the ball to start the third quarter but the Sandy Creek defense held them to a three-and-out. The punt by David Chapeau was muffed and Eli Warrington recovered on the Patriots 28-yard line to keep the drive alive.
Three plays later, Kaleb Sherrer completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Paxson for a 13-0 lead with 9:20 left in the third.
Rashad Finch intercepted a pass and returned it to the Sandy Creek 27-yard line on the ensuing drive by the Patriots.
On the first play, Sherrer completed a 21-yard pass to Paxson. On the next play, Coates ran 6 yards into the end zone for a touchdown. The PAT by Dowis gave the Titans a 20-0 lead with 7:47 left in the third.
Mason Vanderford intercepted a pass on Sandy Creek’s fourth play of its next drive and returned it to the Patriots 37-yard line.
A 19-yard pass from Sherrer to Bennett Toci, a 9-yard pass from Sherrer to Paxson and a 5-yard run by Adam Weynand set up first-and-goal from the Sandy Creek 5. Weynand scored on a run from the 5-yard line and the Titans led 27-0 following the PAT by Dowis with 5:34 left in the third.
“It was critical because it dictates their offense and what they are going to do because they got behind,” Aurandt said about scoring quickly after the turnovers. “We felt strongly they were going to come out and try to throw the football to get back in it. It allowed us to do some things coverage-wise to take those things away. Anytime you can gain momentum with a turnover and a quick score, it is always going to help your sideline.”
Sandy Creek then put together a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Dealo Parson on the first play of the fourth quarter. The two-point conversion was successful, cutting the North Oconee lead to 27-8.
Sandy Creek had a three-minute drive that started on its own 18 but ended when a fourth-down play came up one yard short of a first down with 4:08 left in the game.
“It doesn’t help anytime you turn the ball over. They came in some inopportune times,” Garvin said. “We had some busted route combinations and some busted coverages and they took advantage of it. They threw it where we weren’t when we were supposed to be there. We didn’t get the ball thrown where it needed to be thrown. We will get those things fixed. It is the first year running this offense. I am not disappointed by any stretch of the imagination with our kids, their hard work or our coaching staff. It is a matter of execution.
“They are a good football team. North Oconee is well coached. They do what they do really well. They are a very strong and physical bunch. They will have some pretty good success in the playoffs if they can continue that and keep that up. We didn’t come out and do things right. We didn’t execute very well offensively or defensively. That is a part of football. It is about doing what you are supposed to do every single play. They capitalized on our mistakes. We didn’t really capitalize on the ones they gave us. Best of luck to them. More power to them. I am tickled to be in the playoffs. I wish them all the success they can muster up over the next four weeks.”
North Oconee travels to Roswell to play Blessed Trinity in the second round of the state tournament. The Titans have been to the second round five times in program history.
“I am super proud of our kids and the fight that they have and the way that they prepare. That is what gives them these opportunities,” Aurandt said. “Monday through Thursday and them coming in and being focused and taking this thing to heart, they are changing the landscape and the standard. They are setting a pretty high standard for every team to come. We talked about that on Sunday about the trails that they would blaze for teams to come and how high that bar was going to be set. It only creates more excitement and I am glad we get another opportunity to come back out here on Monday and practice with them because they are a lot of fun to be around.”