Valdosta Daily Times

November 28, 2012

Valwood seniors come full circle

Ed Hooper
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — On Friday night, the Valwood Valiants will host the Westwood Wildcats for the second time in just over a month. This time, though, the Valiants will host the Wildcats in the GISA Class AA State Championship Game at Goddard Field.

Led by a dominant senior class, the Valiants enter the game with a perfect 13-0 record, and are favorites to win Friday night’s game — after beating Westwood 48-18 earlier this season.

“It is a good feeling,” Offensive lineman Griffin Clyatt said. “You know your career is going to end at Valwood, but it is good knowing you don’t have to go out losing a playoff game.”

For the seniors on Valwood’s roster, Friday is much more than a state championship game, though. Instead, it is also the culmination of four years of hard work, which began with a dismal 1-9 record in 2009.

“It’s been a drastic turnaround,” said wide receiver Rashad Mathis. “In 2009, the whole season, it was brutal. Then when we finally won a game, it was a team worse than us, and we didn’t even think that was possible.”

During the 2009 season, under then-head coach Brannon Tidwell, the Valiants lost their first six games before recording a 24-0 win over Windsor Academy — the “worse” team that Mathis and others alluded to when speaking with The Times on Tuesday.

Following the win, Valwood lost its final three games by a combined score of 130-27. The season was one of the worst in Valwood school-history.

“Looking back, I remember how long that season felt, compared to what it felt like this year,” quarterback Jake Lastinger said. “Now it is flying by with all the wins.”

When speaking in the roundtable session on Tuesday, nearly all seven seniors present admitted that during that long, agonizing ’09 season, they all debated quitting the team. Taylor and Mathis admitted they had talks about leaving the team, even on game days.

“Me and Rashad used to always go and sit and be like, “I don’t even want to play football,’” Taylor said. “We bonded, though, and it paid off.”

The bonding the players did during that 2009 season surely did pay off. Since going 1-9, Valwood has posted a 32-5 record, the best record among GISA Class AA teams.

The difference between then and now?

The players say they grew up and matured, while buying into the system that Coach Tidwell was implementing at Valwood.

“We grew up a little during that season,” said lineman Aulden Bynum, who became Valwood’s first-ever Division I commitment when he verbally agreed to play football at the University of Georgia. “We didn’t have a single senior on that (2009) team; we didn’t graduate anyone. So we all just came back experienced.”

Added Taylor: “(Coach Tidwell) always pushed us to be our best. I remember when I was in middle school, we barely worked out. We would go outside and run. Then (Tidwell) put us in the weight room and he pushed our class harder than he pushed any other class. He made us go into the weight room every day. I remember there was a day when I was like, “Man, I’m getting tired of Coach Tidwell.” But he knew there was something special about our class and I’m really grateful for it.”

Then after taking the Valiants to back-to-back state semifinal appearances in 2010-11, Tidwell left and became the head coach at Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia, S.C., relocating to be closer to his family. Valwood replaced Tidwell with Ashley Henderson, a longtime assistant at Valdosta High School. The coaching change didn’t matter. The Valiants just kept winning.

“The only thing that has changed is the playbook,” said Bynum. “They are completely different (guys), but they are both easy to get along with.”

To reach the state championship game this season, the Valiants used a 27-24 win over previously unbeaten John Milledge Academy last week.  

With the game on the line, it was only fitting that two seniors that had been there through the turnaround made the play to secure the win. Facing a fourth-and-eight with less than a minute remaining, John Milledge’s quarterback was sacked by Clyatt and fellow four-year senior Deshon Day, who was not present during Tuesday’s session. The Valiants erupted in celebration.

“The whole team made the play,” Mathis said. “Everybody was making plays.”

While Valwood is completely focused on its state championship game against Westwood this week, the players did entertain the thought of they would fair against teams from the GHSA, like Lowndes and Valdosta.

“Valdosta, I think we could hang with them for the first quarter, and then the second quarter the depth could probably get us,” Taylor said. “Then in the second half, the depth would probably get us.”

Lastinger has a better idea that he has discussed with his dad, former UGA quarterback John Lastinger.

“The only way to make that a fair game is, we have 12 seniors, so they can take 12 seniors, how ever many juniors we have, they can take that,” Lastinger said. “So if they could field a team that was the same size as ours, then I think it could be a ball game.”

Added Bynum: “We would probably not win, but I don’t think our senior class would be scared to play them at all.”