Valdosta Daily Times

December 26, 2012

Top 10 Sports Stories: No. 7: Vikings, Wildcats eliminated in first round

Christian Malone
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Entering the postseason, the football teams from Lowndes and Valdosta were hoping to go deep into the playoffs.

Unfortunately for both teams, their seasons ended in the first round.

Lowndes and Valdosta were both eliminated in the first round of the GHSA state playoffs this year. The Vikings lost 30-27 to Marietta, while the Wildcats got pounded by North Cobb, 42-14. It was the first time that both programs had been knocked out in the first round in the same year.

“We ran into a really good football team," Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie said. "We knew that they were (real good) coming into the game.”

“(Marietta) made some plays, and you can’t take anything from them,” Lowndes head coach Randy McPherson said. “We made too many mistakes to win the game.”

Overall, things had gone well for both Lowndes and Valdosta in the regular season.

The Vikings won their first nine games, and were ranked in the top 5 in Class 6A for much of the season. Their only defeat was a 24-7 loss to nationally-ranked Camden County in their last regular season game. Valdosta was upset by Brooks County in its second game, but its only other losses came to Camden and Lowndes, and the Wildcats seemed to be playing their best football of the season heading into the playoffs, after hammering Coffee 44-7 in their last game of the regular season.

In the first round, both teams would be facing teams without a lot of recent playoff success.

Valdosta’s opponent, North Cobb, had only made it past the first round twice in its history (which dated back to 1958). Lowndes’ opponent, Marietta, had won the state championship in 1967 and had 14 10-win seasons in its history, but hadn’t made it past the second round since 1994.

Lowndes was playing its game at Martin Stadium, where it had only lost once in the playoffs since McPherson became the head coach in 2002. So it was understandable if both Lowndes and Valdosta felt confident going into their first round games.

But North Cobb and Marietta were no slouches. North Cobb was a respectable 8-2. The Warriors had scored at least 42 points in seven of their 10 regular season games, and no one had held them under 26 points all year. Meanwhile, Marietta was 7-3, with its losses coming to a region champion (McEachern) and two region runners-up (Newnan and North Cobb). Marietta also had Anthony Jennings, the No. 5 dual threat quarterback in the country (according to rivals.com), who had verbally committed to LSU, and a wide receiver (Tyree Harris) that was committed to Wake Forest. Jennings had passed for 1,983 yards and 21 touchdowns, and had rushed for 608 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season. The Vikings knew they needed to find a way to slow down Jennings and the Marietta passing attack.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t do it. Jennings finished the night 9 of 19 passing for 195 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

“Their quarterback was the difference in the ball game,” McPherson said after the game. ”He was everything they said he was.”

Marietta scored on three of its first four offensive possessions. It got a 19-yard field goal after a long interception return by Tyrell Tomlin. Then Jennings connected with Chavez Hemphill on a 91-yard touchdown pass. Jennings’ 30-yard touchdown pass to Harris gave Marietta a 16-3 lead.

Lowndes’ Gustavo Gonzales kicked two field goals in the first half, and the Vikings found themselves trailing 16-6 at halftime.

Marietta got the ball to start the second half, and put another touchdown on the board. Jennings threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Mathis to put Marietta ahead 23-6.

The Vikings needed a spark at that point, and they got it when Tiquan Lang returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, making it 23-13. A few possessions later, Lowndes’ Ahman Brown scored on a 5-yard run, which cut Marietta’s lead to 23-20.

But Jennings had one more big play left in him. Early in the fourth quarter, he broke loose and sprinted 88 yards for a touchdown, increasing Marietta’s lead back to 10 points, 30-20.

Nick Burgman answered for Lowndes, racing 41 yards for a touchdown that trimmed the Vikings’ deficit back to three, 30-27.

Later, Lowndes drove to midfield, but fumbled the ball away. After recovering the fumble, Marietta was able to kill most of the clock, before turning the ball over on downs with under a minute to go. Lowndes had one final chance, but the Marietta defense sacked LHS quarterback Alex Stephenson twice, and the clock ran out before the Vikings could get into scoring position.

About 250 miles away in Acworth, Valdosta was also seeing its season come to an end.

The Wildcats ran into a North Cobb team that was jelling into a strong team on both sides of the ball. The offense was putting up big numbers on the scoreboard, and the defense had shut out two of its three previous opponents.

The Warriors did just about everything right against Valdosta. Their potent offense piled up 392 yards and made several big plays. Their defense picked off five passes, and limited Valdosta (a team that had rushed for around 2,000 yards in the regular season) to just 28 yards rushing on 28 carries. And the Warriors scored 42 points; then-No. 1 Camden County was the only other team that had been able to put up that many points against the 2012 Wildcats.

North Cobb’s offensive line opened up holes for the runners and provided strong pass protection for quarterback Tyler Queen. And its front seven on defense prevented the Wildcats from being able to run the ball effectively, and frequently put pressure on Valdosta quarterback Shelby Wilkes.

Valdosta took an early 7-0 lead on a 6-yard touchdown run by Nelson Herring, but North Cobb answered with an 11-yard touchdown run by J'Vonte Herrod, tying the score at 7-7.

Then three big plays by North Cobb — two interceptions and a long touchdown pass — helped the Warriors score 21 points in a span of less than seven minutes.

The first big play came when North Cobb defensive back Cameron Albright picked off a pass at the VHS 25 and returned it for a touchdown. On the first play of the Warriors’ next drive, Queen threw a quick screen pass to wide receiver Xavier Borishade, who caught the ball near the line of scrimmage and sprinted 62 yards untouched into the end zone to give the Warriors a 21-7 lead. Four plays later, North Cobb's Latrell Gibbs picked off a pass and returned it to the Wildcats' 5. Queen ran for a touchdown on the next play, giving North Cobb a 28-7 lead.

That onslaught of points was devastating to the Wildcats. Valdosta never got closer than 14 points the rest of the game.

"It did (change the game)," Gillespie admitted. "They made two good plays (on the interceptions), and (changed) the game."

On the first possession of the second half, Wilkes threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Taijuan Smith, cutting the Wildcats’ deficit to 28-14. But any momentum Valdosta might have gained from that score was killed when Borishade caught a slant pass and sprinted 45 yards for a touchdown, giving North Cobb a 35-14 lead. Then North Cobb's Romelo Lewis picked off a pass on the first play of Valdosta's ensuing possession.

Valdosta had one more scoring chance early in the fourth quarter, but turned the ball over on downs at the Warriors’ 3. Queen’s 24-yard touchdown run with 3:17 left in the game made the final score 42-14.

Queen only completed four passes all night, but those four completions went for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. Borishade’s two catches went for 107 yards and two touchdowns. Herrod rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. For Valdosta, Wilkes completed 19 of 46 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown, but was picked off five times.

North Cobb looked like one of the top teams in the state that night, and that was no accident. After beating Valdosta, the Warriors routed Region 3-6A champion Langston Hughes by an identical 42-14 score in the second round, then won a 42-35 shootout with Mill Creek in the quarterfinals. They made it all the way to the semifinals, where they lost a barnburner to Lovejoy, 63-42.

Marietta lost in the second round to Lovejoy, 36-15.