The Valdosta Daily Times
No Khary Paige, no problem for the Valwood Valiants.
Playing without their leading offensive weapon — Paige leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns along with tackles this season — the top-ranked Valiants had no problem beating up on the Central Fellowship Lancers in the first round of the GISA Class AA state playoffs Friday night at Goddard Field.
Led by an impressive passing performance by senior Tyler Williams, a pair of long touchdown runs by Zane Edmondson and Marik Merine and elite defensive play, the Valiants cruised to a 41-0 win. Despite the win, Valwood head coach Ashley Henderson was quick to point out his team’s flaws on the night.
“We were sloppy in a lot of the things we did tonight,” Henderson said. “I thought we came out kind of sloppy; everyone was looking around waiting for someone to make a play. We fumbled a snap, we got some penalties. We sputtered out of the gates, but Tyler (Williams) put up a couple balls on the money; Rashad (Mathis) made a couple of plays for us and the offensive line had a great game. I thought they protected their butts off.
“It was what we thought it was,” Henderson continued. “We made some plays there and we emptied the bench and got everyone in. It is always a good night when you get everyone in.”
Despite the sloppy start Henderson referred to, which featured the Valiants turning the ball over on downs on their first possession of the game, Valwood still managed to score all 41 of its points in the first half, leading to a running clock throughout the entire second half.
Williams finished 5 of 6 passing for 148 yards with three touchdowns, two of which fell into the hands of receiver Rashad Mathis (3 receptions for 98 yards on the night). Williams also tossed 23-yard touchdown pass to Char Merine in the second quarter, coming one possession after he ran in a score of his own.
“Tyler made the right reads, took a couple of shots down the field and made the right reads on it,” Henderson said. “Guys just went up and made plays on it. He hit Rashad in stride twice and Char once and those guys know what to do with it when they’re in the open field. They are hard to bring down.”
On the ground, Edmondson and Marik Merine made up for the absence of Paige, combining for 140 yards with two touchdowns on just eight combined carries.
“Khary could have played tonight but he is kind of nursing an injury, so we wanted to hold him back a little bit,” Henderson said. “But it’s like I’ve been saying, we have a three-headed monster there at running back. Zane and Mark can both do it, too. They just haven’t gotten as many touches as Khary, but their time is coming and when their number was called tonight, they took advantage of the opportunity.”
While the Valwood offense cruised its way to 343 yards (294 in the first half with the starters), the defense was just as impressive. With the starters on the field, the Valiants held the Lancers to just one yard of total offense in the first half. Central Fellowship finished the game with 93 yards, using a pair of long drives against the backups to rack up the yards in the second half.
“(The defense) has been tough all year, especially against the run,” said Henderson of his defense, which recovered a fumble and forced an interception on the night. “They were stout up the middle and hustled to the ball. They made them earn every inch they got tonight.”
Valwood opened the scoring on its second offensive possession when Williams tossed the first of his three touchdown passes, finding Mathis on a 38-yard TD connection down the left sideline. Mathis then connected with offensive lineman Griffin Clyatt on the two-point conversion from the swinging gate formation, giving the Valiants an 8-0 lead.
Following a three-and-out by Central Fellowship, Valwood needed just two plays to get back into the end zone. This time, Mark Merine broke free for a 52-yard touchdown run, cutting up the middle and cutting back across the field, dodging defenders in the process. Valwood’s extra point was blocked, keeping the score 14-0.
Later in the quarter, Williams got the job done with his feet, crashing into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run, giving Valwood a 20-0 lead. Once again, Valwood’s extra point was blocked.
After a fourth straight three-and-out for Central Fellowship, Williams connected with Char Merine, who has been selected to play in the rising Senior Bowl Dec. 31 in Atlanta, for a 33-yard TD pass. After Carter Elliott’s extra point, the Valiants led 27-0.
On Valwood’s following possession, Williams hit Mathis in stride for a 47-yard touchdown connection, which was followed up two possessions later with a 58-yard touchdown run by Edmondson that closed out Valwood’s scoring.
Valwood was able to play all its backup players in the second half, giving its starters valuable rest time for next week’s second round game against Trinity Christian. Valwood will be at home for its second round game and kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.