They call it the Winnersville Classic. Once again, it truly was a classic.
Lowndes and Valdosta went down to the wire for the third year in a row in their annual crosstown showdown. This time, it came down to the final play. And this time, it was the Vikings who pulled out the victory.
Gustavo Gonzales’ 40-yard field goal on the final play of the game gave Lowndes a 17-14 victory over archrival Valdosta on Friday night at Cleveland Field at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
It was a tremendous ending to a tremendous football game.
“That was two really good football teams,” Lowndes head coach Randy McPherson said. “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.”
“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 to play in the game, the score was tied 14-14, and Valdosta was facing third-and-10 at its own 40-yard line. Quarterback Shelby Wilkes took the snap and looked for a receiver. He fired over the middle towards a receiver, but the ball went off of the receiver’s hands and right into the hands of Tiquan Lang, Lowndes’ All-State safety.
After Lang picked off the pass at his own 45, he started running with the ball, trying to get as far down the field as possible. Following his blockers, he took the ball all the way to the Valdosta 32, putting the Vikings close to Gonzales’ range.
“It feels real good,” Lang said. “I had to make a play for my team, and I did it.”
Lang was tackled for no gain on first down, then Nick Burgman gained six and four yards on the next two plays. Lowndes let the clock run down, then called timeout with 4.5 seconds left, and sent Gonzales in to try a 40-yard field goal. After the Vikings lined up for the field goal, Valdosta called a timeout to try to ice the kicker.
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 tick off the clock, as the fans on the visitors’ side began celebrating the win.
It was one of those games 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. Lowndes started the drive at its own 8. 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, thanks in part to a false start penalty and a tackle in the backfield, but Gonzales kicked a 21-yard field goal to give Lowndes a 3-0 lead.
Late in the first half, Lowndes took over at its own 7, after a 68-yard punt by Valdosta’s Mac Loudermilk. Stephenson threw a screen pass to Burgman, and Burgman raced 42 yards down the Lowndes sideline, down to the Wildcat 47. Later in the drive, Stephenson’s 16-yard pass to Kenny Moore on third down got the ball to the 3. 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's Sherrod Inman caught the opening kickoff of the second half, and took off running. Inman got some blocks in front of him, 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.
On second-and-9, Wilkes lined up in the shotgun and Lowndes’ defense prepared to blitz. Gillespie and the Wildcats had the Vikings right where they wanted them.
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.
“We were kind of sitting on the swing pass,” Gillespie said. “They’ve gotten to where they blitz so much that we knew we had that, and we were saving it (for the right time). They were in an all-out blitz, and it was set up for us.”
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. On second-and-22, Burgman broke free on a misdirection play and raced 41 yards, all the way to the Valdosta 32. The Vikings moved the ball to the VHS 13, but on third-and-4, Valdosta linebacker John Bellamy raced in on a blitz and sacked Stephenson at the 19. Gonzales kicked a 37-yard field goal to cut Valdosta’s lead to 7-6.
Late in the third quarter, Stephenson tried to throw a screen pass, and Valdosta’s Darrius Sapp read the play and dropped into coverage. The big defensive tackle picked off the pass near midfield and returned it to the Vikings’ 42.
Two Herring runs moved the ball to the 17. After a holding penalty moved the Wildcats back to the 25, Inman leaped and hauled in Wilkes’ pass at 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.
Lowndes answered with a long 14-play, 90-yard drive that lasted 7:36. Twice the Vikings faced third-and-long. The first time, Stephenson found Burgman for 12 yards to move the chains. The next time, Burgman gained 13 yards for another first down.
Five plays later, the Vikings faced third-and-7 at the Valdosta 20. Stephenson took the snap and lofted a pass towards the end zone. Burgman had made big plays throughout the night, and this time, he made one of his biggest, hauling in the pass a couple of yards over the goal line for the touchdown. Lowndes went for the two-point conversion, and called a toss sweep to Lang, who ran into the end zone to tie the score at 14-14 with 4:17 left in the game.
Then Lang intercepted a pass, and put Gonzales and the Vikings in position to win the game.
“Big players make big plays,” Lang said.
Burgman was the game’s MVP. On Friday night, he ran for 138 yards on 21 carries. He caught three passes for 42 yards. And 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.
“I had my team right here with me, and they came and supported me,” Stephenson said. “They kept my head up the whole time. I have the best team and the best coaches in the world.”
For Valdosta, Herring ran for 56 yards on nine carries and Joseph had 40 yards on 11 carries. Wilkes completed eight of 12 passes for 96 yards and one touchdown, as well as an interception.
Lowndes improved to 7-0, and 3-0 in Region 1-6A, while Valdosta fell to 3-3, and 0-2 in region play.
They call it the Winnersville Classic. Once again, it truly was a classic.
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