VALDOSTA -- Lowndes High knows how to make the most out of a second chance.
The Vikings had an opportunity to put away archrival Valdosta High in the first quarter, but two straight red zone possessions yielded only three points. In years past, this would have opened the floodgates to a Wildcat romp, no questions asked.
Friday night, it only delayed the inevitable, as the No. 7 Vikings thrilled and stunned a capacity crowd at Martin Stadium by registering a surprisingly easy 23-10 Region 1-AAAAA title-clinching win in the 40th meeting between the two schools.
The Vikings won their third straight Winnersville Classic over No. 3 Valdosta, the best streak in school history, won by the biggest margin in school history (the previous mark was 10 points) and also registered their highest point total against the Wildcats, eclipsing a 24-21 loss in 1979.
Even more amazing, the margin could have been bigger. Lowndes led 17-0 at intermission, an d gave away a chance at a four-touchdown margin. But even with two turnovers and a blocked extra point, the Vikings (8-1, 6-1) left no doubt who the better team was Friday.
Still, even Lowndes' players were surprised by how big the lead got. Asked if he ever imagined leading Valdosta (9-1, 6-1) by three scores, senior wide receiver Andy Gay answered "Not really. I knew they were pretty tough. It felt good to go ahead and get out on them like that early."
"Their defense was so talented, and give them credit, they hung in the whole time," said senior quarterback Barrett Wilkes, who has engineered all three wins in the streak. "It just kind of happened."
Brad Robinson opened the scoring with a 29-yard field goal with 7:07 to play in the first quarter, and Lowndes never trailed again. But Viking fans didn't begin feeling comfortable until Demetrius Henry hauled in a 4-yard touchdown pass with 8:14 left in the half, making amends for his earlier fumble near the VHS goal line. Robinson's kick put Lowndes ahead 10-0.
The Wildcats drove to the LHS 25 before turning the ball over on downs and later got the ball back near midfield before making a critical turnover. Darrin Richardson set up shop in the flat and whisked away a Jarrod Alford throw, returning it 36 yards. Wilkes found Cory Clemons for a 14-yard score the next play and Lowndes held a 17-0 lead at halftime.
"That was real big," said Lowndes coach Milt Miller. "We were glad we had them, but we didn't feel like that would be enough."
Sure enough, the Wildcats came out charging in the third quarter, but Valdosta still couldn't quite get over the hump. Esau Bauknight hauled in a 19-yard pass from Alford, but coughed up the ball near the goal line, allowing Anthony McCastle to recover for Lowndes. Another possession stalled inside the 10 before Ryan O'Dea finally put the Wildcats on the board with 3:15 left in the third.
The Vikings had managed only a pair of three-and-out possessions to start the half, but Wilkes and Gay put the game out of reach with a 40-yard scoring connection. Andrew Braley blocked the PAT try, but the Vikings had a 23-3 lead after three quarters and the celebration in the home stands was on.
"We saw on film that a lot of our passing game would work on them," said Gay, who ended his last regular-season home game with six receptions for 111 yards. "All we had to do really was go out and execute our passing game, and we knew it would work."
"We felt like we were going to have a big game," said Miller. "We were due a big game. We've been kind of just getting by with some things, but we felt just felt like our kids were going to be ready."
Valdosta never gave up the fight in the fourth quarter, capping a four-play, 45-yard drive with a 3-yard Corey James touchdown. O'Dea's point after put the Wildcats withing 13 points with 9:38 to play.
Travis Stibbins took advantage of a rare mistake by Wilkes on the next series, picking off a pass intended for Marcus Griffith. Valdosta drove down to the Viking 33 and appeared to have a score, but a clipping flag wiped out
a touchdown catch by James. The Wildcats later turned the ball over on downs and never crossed midfield the rest of the night.
Valdosta coach Mike O'Brien could not be reached for comment after the game, catching a quick bus back across town.
Lowndes travels to Thomas County Central next Friday before opening the Class AAAAA playoffs Nov. 23 at home versus Griffin. Valdosta, the second seed in the region, will host Warner Robins the same night at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
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