The Valdosta Daily Times
It was another amazing Winnersville Classic Friday night at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. It was two quality football teams that laid it all on the line to win a ball game. In the end, the Lowndes Vikings made one more play than the Valdosta Wildcats to win the game.
I have to say, my first two Winnersville Classic games have been pretty unbelievable. First, Valdosta scores 14 points in the final 49 seconds to beat the Vikings last year and then Lowndes turns around and kicks a game-winning field goal on the final play to beat the Wildcats this year.
It was two solid football games. I am already looking forward to next year’s Classic.
Here are some things we learned from this year’s Winnersville Classic:
1. Winnersville is the best. It didn’t take long to fully understand the Winnersville rivalry. I figured that out in about two minutes last year. This year was once again another great atmosphere for high school football in South Georgia.
I walked into the stadium nearly an hour and a half before the game, and there were already 100 students from both schools in the stands chanting back and forth with one another. The Valdosta students had the better chants, I must say. Some of the chants had me cracking up. Once the crowd started to file in, it was electric. Add in the bands, and it was a typical loud, rowdy and fun Winnersville environment. There were a few fans that had their problems, including the few that got on to me, but that is expected. Not everyone is going to be completely satisfied with everything, especially when his or her school loses to its crosstown rival.
2. Gonzales has ice veins. Friday night’s game was just Lowndes kicker Gustavo Gonzales’ seventh career football game. You couldn’t tell by watching the senior kick the ball. The Vikings used Gonzales’ 40-yard field goal to beat the Wildcats as time expired to win their eighth Winnersville Classic in the past nine years.
With a lot of pressure riding on his leg, Gonzales was perfect Friday night. The kid didn’t let the pressure get to him and he treated the final kick like it was just another kick in practice, even though we all know it was a kick for the history books. Gonzales also kicked two field goals earlier in the game, helping the Vikings get points on the scoreboard while the offense struggled to find the end zone until the fourth quarter.
3. Stephenson is a solid QB option. In his return to Valdosta’s Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, former Wildcat turned Viking starting quarterback Alex Stephenson had his rough moments, but he also had his positives. There is no denying the Wildcats had Stephenson targeted Friday night and wanted to send him a message for switching teams. The senior took his shots and made his mistakes — he was intercepted once, fumbled a few snaps (but didn’t lose any), muffed a hold on a field goal and was sacked three times.
But in the end, Stephenson made the plays he had to. With Lowndes trailing 14-6 in the fourth quarter, Stephenson engineered a scoring drive — with massive help from running back Nick Burgman — completing several key passes, including one on third-and-10, to keep the drive alive. Stephenson capped the drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Burgman.
Stephenson finished the game 6 of 7 passing for 132 yards and a touchdown, and more importantly, he proved he can be the quarterback for the Vikings the rest of the season, although junior Seth Carlo isn’t a bad option, either.
4. Valdosta is a good 3-3 team. Consider Valdosta’s three losses this year: Brooks County (undefeated and ranked second in Class AA), Camden County (the state’s top-ranked team in 6A, who is also ranked nationally) and Lowndes (a crosstown rival that is now 7-0 and ranked fourth in Class 6A).
Those are three tough games to lose and three tough teams to beat. The Wildcats are 3-3 with four games remaining, which won’t be easy. Valdosta plays at Tift County, home against Colquitt County and finishes with back-to-back road games at Brunswick and Coffee. Those won’t be easy, and another loss could cost the Wildcats a playoff berth.
Walking away from Friday’s game, I determined the Wildcats aren’t a bad football team. Yes, they were blown out by Camden County, but what team hasn’t been this season? (Notice: Lowndes fans don’t judge, you haven’t played them yet.)
Valdosta has quality players like Malcolm Joseph, Nelson Herring, Clarence Smith and Shelby Wilkes. With Rance Gillespie at the helm, the Wildcats will be all right. I hope they right the ship and get some wins to finish the year. The GHSA state playoffs are better when Valdosta is one of the teams fighting for a state championship.
5. Lowndes’ defense is clutch: There has been a lot of talk about how good the Lowndes defense is this season. On Friday night, the Vikings proved that yet again. With the game on the line and the potential of Valdosta going down the field to win the game, Lowndes’ defense forced the turnover that set up the game-winning field goal by Gonzales. Two weeks ago against Colquitt County, the Viking defense forced two sacks and the game-clinching interception on the Packers’ final drive when the game was on the line.
With three shutouts this regular season and a pair of close region wins over Colquitt County and Valdosta, the Lowndes defense is proving why it is one of the best in the region and the state.
Ed can be reached on Twitter at @Ed_Hooper.