VALDOSTA -- If the No. 5 team in the state hangs on at home to beat an unranked team, can it be called an upset? Unlikely.
Could that same result be called a relief? Unquestionably.
Lowndes High shrugged off a tumultuous offseason coaching search, a shaky preseason and a handful of missed opportunities in the first half Friday night, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter and holding on for an 18-15 win over Westside-Macon in a battle of Class AAAAA teams at Martin Stadium. The win gave Randy McPherson his first victory as Vikings head coach and Lowndes an answer for its critics after falling twice in preseason scrimmages to teams from lower classifications.
"This is definitely a special win for me and our staff," said McPherson, coaching in his first official game since leading Madison County to Florida's Class 2A state championship last December. "We've been working our guts out trying to get these kids playing right and getting our new system in. It couldn't have come at a better time."
For most of Friday's game, it was far from certain that a win would come at all. Lowndes (1-0) held the Seminoles in check most of the night on defense, but watched three drives inside the Westside 25 yield no points. That's when junior Trent McClendon took matters into his own hands, recovering his second fumble of the night at the Seminole 14 with 1:32 left in the third quarter.
"Every play, we go to the ball full speed," said McClendon, who also recovered a fumble on Westside's opening snap. "We saw most of their plays in practice, and we stepped up to the challenge."
The offense finally got on the board in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Brandon Ponder found a tumbling Cory Clemons in the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown pass and an 8-7 Lowndes lead.
From there, the Vikings rode momentum like a favorite pony. Marlon White coughed up the ball on Westside's next play from scrimmage and senior defensive back Jarone Martin recovered to put Lowndes in business at the Seminole 32. Ponder and Clemons connected for a 27-yard touchdown three plays later, and Ponder's 2-point conversion run made the score 16-7. The second bad punt snap of the night for Westside (0-1) resulted in Lowndes' second safety of the evening and an 18-7 advantage.
"It felt like old times," said Clemons, who caught four passes for 79 yards. "we made some changes in practice last week, put in some play-action passes and stuff (and) we made it work. We had to win this one despite the odds.
"(The touchdown passes) came down and I just caught them. I just concentrated, especially on the second (touchdown), I just kept my eye on it."
Westside's Antwan Brantley hit Larry Patrick on a 40-yard pass to set up a 1-yard touchdown toss to Wanza Williams. With the 2-point conversion, the Seminoles trailed only 18-15 with 2:25 left, but Lowndes recovered the onside kick and used a daring 40-yard pass to Zach Parker on third-and-long to ice the win.
McPherson said he never thought about a run call from midfield with 1:01 left.
"We needed the first down," he laughed.
"I'm so proud of the kids and assistant coaches," McPherson added. "The kids played their hearts out. They deserved this win. They worked their butts off and kept their heads up after a couple of scrimmages that we didn't play so well in. They came out here, executed and played their guts out.
"We're still making a few mistakes, but heck it's a win. I hate to say anything negative. Shoot it's a dadgum win."
The Vikings had several chances to score in the first half but never broke through. Lowndes drove to the Westside 7 on its second drive, but a 24-yard field goal try sailed just left. A fake field goal midway through the second quarter was snuffed out at the 9-yard line and Lowndes also drove to the 21 late in the half before being pushed back and stopped on downs.
Westside took a 7-0 lead on Travis Evans' 2-yard touchdown run with 6:29 to play in the first half. B.J. Wright brought down punter Jerome Sinclair in the end zone with 2:21 l
eft before intermission to cut the lead to 7-2.
Lowndes has an extra day off before playing a Saturday night game Sept. 7 at Southwest DeKalb-Decatur. Southwest DeKalb lost to Marist, 16-13, Friday night.
The Vikings return home Sept. 13 to take on McIntosh High-Peachtree City. Westside is off next week before beginning Region 2-AAAAA play September 13 at Warner Robins.
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