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HAHIRA, Ga. — Chippy play by both teams, penalty flags flying, players making big-time plays when it mattered and the crowd going wild.
Friday night at Goddard Field had it all as the Valwood Valiants stormed back to beat the Deerfield-Windsor Knights 28-14 on Senior Night.
After forcing Valwood (8-3, 2-3 in GISA Region 3-3A) to punt on fourth-and-16, Deerfield looked poised to steal a road win. On first-and-10 from the 16-yard line, Deerfield quarterback Jack Kimbrel fired to tight end John Logan wide open down the middle and watched him motor 84 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 13 with 3:05 left in the game.
Despite scoring the touchdown, the Knights were whistled for an excessive celebration penalty that turned their short extra-point attempt into a 35-yard field goal. Kicker Parker Orlowski drilled the point-after to give the Knights a 14-13 lead.
“That’s been our cry the whole time — ‘What do we do when things go against us? Pour more steam,'” Valwood coach Justin Henderson said. “I learned that when I was in high school and we brought it back this year. We felt like, some games early in the season, some bad things happened and we had a hard time changing that momentum back.
“If you looked at the energy level of our offensive huddle when they took the field for that last drive, they were fired up. They were ready to go. They were glad that the ball was in their hands and they just found a way.”
That’s when the Valiants and senior quarterback Caleb Burns decided to make a stand.
Senior Willie Roberson broke runs of 13, 12 and six yards to start the drive. Burns hit senior Treb Wetherington for a four-yard gain and Jaheim James for six more before picking a yard up on the ground himself. On the next play from scrimmage, senior Ashton McNeil found an opening and blasted into the end zone to score with 1:09 left.
“We’ve been a bend but don’t break kind of team all year, I think,” Burns said. “As soon as they scored, the whole offensive line, all the skill guys that were on the sideline said, “You know what, let’s go, this is not how we’re gonna end our senior night,’ and we proved it on the field.”
The Valiants went for two and got it when Burns found Wetherington in the back right corner of the end zone to put the Valiants up 21-14 with 1:09 to go.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Knights took over. Two plays into the drive, Kimbrel dropped back, scrambled to his left and launched downfield but his pass was intercepted by Wetherington, who broke on the ball and never stopped running — a 48-yard return for a touchdown to seal the Valiants’ victory with 44.1 seconds left in regulation.
“I just watched the quarterback’s eyes and when I saw the ball leave his hand, I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is mine,'” Wetherington said of the game-sealing pick.
The Knights marched right down the field on the Valiants on their first offensive series, a nine-play, 63-yard drive culminating on a Logan 1-yard touchdown run with 8:03 left in the first quarter.
With the game tied at 7 at the half, the Valiants started the second half with the ball and gave the Knights a taste of their own medicine.
Burns, along with McNeil and Roberson, guided a 10-play, 76-yard scoring drive ending with a punch-in by Cam Carter from a yard away to put the Valiants in front 13-7 with 7:02 to go in the third quarter.
Despite being out-gained 176-64 in the first half, the Valiants were able to find their rhythm on offense with the run in the second half.
Both teams were flagged for late hits and taunting penalties in the game. In spite of the chippy, physical nature of the game, Henderson praised his team for the way they responded down the stretch.
“It’s been fun, no doubt about it,” Henderson said. “It’s been a roller coaster but nights like tonight and watching these kids and the excitement on their faces, they make whatever hours you put in as a head coach worth it. They have learned through the course of this season that when life kicks you in the mouth, you pick yourself up and go back to work. I didn’t feel like we did a great job of that early in the year and so far, we’ve learned how to respond to it.
“We were the No. 3 seed mathematically going into it. I didn’t tell the kids that because I didn’t want to risk an end of season loss. We kept it going forward. They’re starting to believe they can’t be beat and when a team figures out how to win, they’re gonna be tough to beat.”