Ed Hooper and Christian Malone
The Valdosta Daily Times
1:14. That is how long it took the Valdosta football team to engineer one of the greatest finishes in Winnersville Classic history.
After seven years of pain and anguish of losing to crosstown rival Lowndes, the Wildcats forever changed the Winnersville rivalry, shocking the Vikings with one of the greatest, craziest finishes in the 50-game history of the series.
Trailing 17-7 with 1:14 remaining, the Valdosta Wildcats did the unthinkable, the near impossible. Valdosta scored two touchdowns to win 21-17 in the 2011 edition of the Winnersville Classic. But, it wasn’t just any finish or just another win for the Wildcats.
No, this finish — the way the touchdowns were scored and what the comeback meant to the Wildcat program and the history of the Winnersville Classic — that will be forever remembered.
“We made the plays that we needed to make to win the football game. And what an unbelievable football game it was,” Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie said. “It was just an incredible win. Our kids kept stepping up to the plate, making plays and never quitting. In this program, that’s something we pride ourselves on, something that’s one of the core values of this organization. It was great to win a football game in that fashion.
“I’ve never been a part of a game like that.”
After falling behind by two touchdowns in the first half, the Wildcats closed the gap to 10 points in the fourth quarter. But following an interception thrown by quarterback Shelby Wilkes, it looked as though the Wildcats were on their way to an eighth straight loss to the Vikings and an 0-1 start in region play.
The Valdosta faithful started to pile out of Lowndes’ Martin Stadium and head to their cars to sulk after what seemed like another loss, another defeat to their neighbors.
The Wildcats had different plans, though. There had been enough crying and enough pain over the past seven years. The time to end the streak and upset the Vikings was now.
Valdosta forced the Viking offense to a three-and-out following Josh Harvey-Clemons’ interception and took over possession of the ball at their own 40-yard line with 1:14 left. Then it happened. The Wildcats engineered one of the greatest finishes in football.
Wilkes threw a screen play to Charlie Albritton that gave the Wildcats first and goal at the Lowndes 6. Two plays later, Wilkes found Sherrod Inman in the end zone for a touchdown, cutting Lowndes’ lead to 17-14.
The Wildcats weren’t finished, though.
With just 49 seconds remaining, the Wildcats recovered their own onside kick and took over at the Lowndes 48. Momentum had changed inside the stadium. Valdosta could feel it.
“I just remember thinking in my head on the sidelines, ‘If we can get on the field one more time, we might have a chance,’” Wilkes told the Times this week. “But I couldn’t have written the ending like that. That was something special. I thank the Lord for that. That was something great to be a part of.”
After a false start penalty pushed the Wildcats back five yards, Wilkes engineered a great finish, connecting with Tyran Watkins on second-and-15, which took the ’Cats to the Lowndes 35. After a spiked ball stopped the clock, Wilkes changed the Winnersville rivalry forever.
The then-junior quarterback connected with Avery Burney down the Lowndes sideline. Burney turned up field, got away from the grasp of a Viking defender and raced off to the end zone. The score gave Valdosta its first and only lead of the game. The Wildcats led 21-17 with 17 seconds remaining.
“On the first (touchdown drive), we started out with a little screen play, and Charlie hit it and did a great job of running it. The kids did a good job of not panicking, not getting too excited, getting down (the field), getting the ball spiked. I thought the execution of those little things was what was the most impressive (part) of the win. Sherrod Inman makes a great catch, Shelby makes a great throw on the little corner route that we scored on to get it within reach,” Gillespie said. “Then we did a great job of executing the onside kick, and we end up getting it. Charlie makes a play, Shelby and Sherrod make a play, Randy Cook makes a play (recovering the onside kick), Dale Kent makes a play (kicking the ball on the onside kick).
“We get the ball, and then we hit Tyran (Watkins), and got the ball right there in position where one, maybe two more completions, we can kick the field goal and take it into overtime and see what happens. (Shelby) ends up getting flushed on the last play, gets the ball out there to Avery, and then Avery scores.”
The Winnersville Classic was truly a classic.
To top off the night, the Wildcats didn’t give the Vikings a chance for some magic of their own as they recovered the ensuing kickoff, a squib kick that bounced off the leg of a Viking player.
“I can remember (what happened on every play). I remember Charlie caught the screen,” Wilkes described. “On the next play, Sherrod catches it in the corner of the end zone. Then there’s the onside kick. I throw an incompletion to the right. I throw one over the middle (to Tyran Watkins), and we get down the field a little bit. Then I roll out, and then (Burney’s touchdown) happens. (Then) we kick it, and it bounces off his leg, and we get it back.”
After a celebration penalty, Wilkes took a knee and pandemonium broke out on the visitors’ side of Martin Stadium.
“The best part of that whole game is after I saw (Burney) score, I turned. You know how stuff slows down in your mind, and you see it in slow motion? I caught everybody in mid-air (celebrating the touchdown),” Wilkes said. “That was the best part, just seeing how excited everybody else was. That was the best part for me.”
Not everyone saw the great finish, though.
“When Burney scored the touchdown, I blacked out and didn’t see the score,” said Valwood head coach Ashley Henderson, who served on Valdosta’s staff the previous seven years before taking over the Valiants’ program this offseason. “I was laying on the floor of the Lowndes press box. But, it was the most amazing thing I have ever been a part of, on a football field.
“We had been in a position to win a number of times before, but hadn’t made the plays that we needed to win it. That year, I’m not sure if the stars aligned or what, because that was way more improbable and we did it.”
The win over the Vikings propelled the Wildcats to their first region championship since 2003. It also made the annual game between the teams a true rivalry, one where both teams are victorious in the same decade. One where anything can happen.
“It’s a game like no other, that’s for sure,” Gillespie said. “It’s a huge rivalry, an unbelievable atmosphere for high school football. There’s a lot of things to attribute the rivalry and that atmosphere to. No. 1, Valdosta’s just a football-crazy town, period. Then you’ve got two good football programs (that are) only about (5.6) miles apart. You’ve got proximity, you’ve got two quality programs, just a lot of things that factor into being (a great rivalry).”
The loss sent the Vikings into a tailspin, as they dropped their next game 34-7 to Colquitt County. The finished the year with an 8-4 record and third in Region 1-AAAAA.
It also has brought much anticipation into this year’s contest at Valdosta. Wilkes is ready for the showdown with the Vikings.
“You can’t help but get excited for this one,” said Wilkes, who transferred to Valdosta from Colquitt County prior to the start of the 2011 season. “Everything’s going on around town. It’s just a buzz everywhere.
“I’ve always known it was big, but I didn’t know how big until last year, when I played in it.”