Valdosta Daily Times

December 28, 2012

No. 5: Lowndes beats Valdosta on final play

Christian Malone
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — For the third year in a row, the Winnersville Classic was decided in the final seconds. This time, it was the Lowndes Vikings who emerged victorious.

Gustavo Gonzales’ 40-yard field goal on the final play of the game gave Lowndes a 17-14 win over crosstown rival Valdosta in the 2012 Winnersville Classic at sold out Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.

It was another memorable ending in a rivalry that has seen its share of memorable games.

“That was two really good football teams,” Lowndes head coach Randy McPherson said after the game. “You can forget about records. They did an excellent job against us, and we were able to play hard, make some plays and come out with a win.”

Down to the wire games are becoming an annual occurrence in the Winnersville Classic. In 2010, Lowndes linebacker Josh Clemons batted down a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game to help the Vikings hold on for a 24-17 win. In 2011, Valdosta staged an epic comeback, scoring two touchdowns in the final 49 seconds to beat Lowndes 21-17 at Martin Stadium. Then came this year’s game.

“It was a really good football game,” Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie said. “It has been (a great game) for the last three years.”

With less than two minutes remaining in the game, the score was tied 14-14. Valdosta quarterback Shelby Wilkes, who had led the Wildcats to those two last-minute touchdowns in 2011, had another opportunity to try to drive his team down the field for a game-winning score.

But on third-and-10 from the Valdosta 40, Wilkes tried to throw the ball over the middle to Alex Cason. But the ball hit Cason’s hands and ricocheted right to Tiquan Lang, Lowndes’ All-State free safety. Lang picked off the pass, then took off running. With blockers in front of him, Lang ran the ball back to the VHS 32-yard line, putting the Vikings in position for a game-winning score.

“It feels real good,” Lang said. “I had to make a play for my team, and I did it.”

Runs of six and four yards by Nick Burgman moved the ball to the 22-yard line. The Vikings let the clock run down, then called timeout with 4.5 seconds left on the clock, and McPherson sent Gonzales in to try a game-winning field goal. A year earlier, Gonzales had been sitting in the stands watching the Winnersville game. Now he had a chance to win it for his team.

Valdosta called a timeout to try to ice the kicker, then Gonzales lined up for the kick again. Seth Carlo’s snap was on the mark, the hold was good and Gonzales got plenty of leg into the kick. The ball sailed through the air towards the goal posts and split the uprights. The two officials standing underneath the goal posts raised their arms to signal that the kick was good, and the players standing on the Lowndes sideline stormed the field to celebrate.

The clock operator was so focused on watching the play that he forgot to start the clock. But after the kick sailed through the uprights, he quickly started the clock, and let the final 4.5 seconds expire, as the fans on the visitors’ side began celebrating the win.

“This is crazy,” said Gonzales just minutes after his game-winning kick. “Last year, I came and I was in the student section, and now I’m kicking the game-winning field goal. I just want to thank God.

“It is indescribable.”

It was a game that either team could have won.

Lowndes dominated the first half, outgaining Valdosta 173-53, but could only get one field goal, and held a 3-0 lead at halftime.

The Vikings got on the board on their second possession of the game. Alex Stephenson’s 31-yard pass to Malik Roberts moved the Vikings into Wildcat territory, and Burgman’s 21-yard run on fourth-and-10 took the ball to the Valdosta 14. The drive stalled at the 4, but Gonzales kicked a 21-yard field goal to give Lowndes a 3-0 lead.

Late in the first half, Lowndes drove all the way to the VHS 3-yard line. On the final play of the half, the Vikings lined up for a field goal, but the snap was low and Stephenson, the holder, couldn’t field it cleanly. So he picked it up, tried to run with it and was drilled by a Valdosta defender at the 10. The Vikings came away empty on the drive, but headed to the locker room with a 3-0 lead.

Valdosta got the ball to start the second half, and drove for a touchdown. Sherrod Inman caught the opening kickoff of the second half, and returned the ball all the way to the Lowndes 48, giving the Wildcats great field position. Three Malcolm Joseph runs moved the ball to the Lowndes 32. Then on second-and-9, Wilkes lined up in the shotgun and Lowndes’ defense prepared to blitz. Gillespie and the Wildcats were ready for it.

Wilkes took the snap, the Vikings’ blitz came and Wilkes threw a swing pass to Herring in the flat. Herring got a block in front of him, ran by a defender, broke into the open, outran the last defender and sprinted untouched into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.

The home crowd erupted in cheers, and Brennan Goodson’s extra point gave Valdosta a 7-3 lead.

Lang returned the ensuing kickoff to the Vikings’ 40. Burgman’s 41-yard run moved the ball to the Valdosta 32, and helped lead to a 37-yard field goal by Gonzales, which cut Valdosta’s lead to 7-6.

Late in the third quarter, Valdosta defensive tackle Darrius Sapp picked off a screen pass by Stephenson near midfield and returned it to the Vikings’ 42. Two Herring runs and a leaping catch by Inman moved the ball to the 1. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Wilkes crossed the goal line on a quarterback sneak, giving Valdosta a 14-6 lead.

On the 14th play of Lowndes’ ensuing drive, the Vikings faced third-and-7 at the Valdosta 20. Stephenson lofted a pass towards the end zone, and Burgman hauled it in a couple of yards over the goal line for the touchdown. Lang ran for the two-point conversion to tie the score at 14-14 with 4:17 left in the game.

Then Lang’s interception return put Gonzales and the Vikings in position to win the game.

“Big players make big plays,” Lang said.

Burgman was chosen the game’s MVP after rushing for 138 yards on 21 carries and catching three passes for 42 yards and a touchdown. When the Vikings found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter, they put the ball in his hands a number of times, and he delivered on several occasions.

Stephenson, facing his former team, completed six of seven passes for 132 yards and one touchdown, along with one interception.

For Valdosta, Herring ran for 56 yards on nine carries and Malcolm Joseph had 40 yards on 11 carries. Wilkes completed eight of 12 passes for 96 yards and one touchdown, as well as an interception.

The game would end up deciding second place in Region 1-6A. The Vikings finished second, while the Wildcats were third. Both teams lost in the first round of the state playoffs.

Since 1999, nine Lowndes-Valdosta football games have been decided by eight points or less.