VALDOSTA –– Coming off a bye week, No. 4 Valdosta looked rusty at the start against No. 9 Houston County on Friday night.
But an impressive second half prompted head coach Alan Rodemaker to tell his team what many on the outside already believe –– ‘The sky’s the limit’.
The ‘Cats (6-1, 1-0 Region 1-6A) scored 30 second-half points en route to a 52-20 romp of the Bears (4-3, 0-1) in their Region 1-6A opener.
“I don’t know if it was struggling last game against Lowndes or whatever it was, I thought we really had a hard time getting going offensively,” Rodemaker said. “The defense played good from the start. We had a couple penalties that extended drives for them, but other than that late drive for (Houston County) at the end of the game, we were good. ... I am happy. This is our first region win. It’s a big win, so I’m pleased with our guys.
“Maybe it was rust and maybe it was our last game two weeks ago. Either way, hopefully we shook it off tonight and we learned from it. We can have a really good football team if we can get going again like we were about a month ago, but (tonight) was sloppy.”
T.J. Dailey had 12 carries for 91 yards and a season-high four touchdowns as the ‘Cats tallied 186 yards on the ground in the victory.
Dailey’s final score of the night came with 9:55 left in the game, as he took the handoff from quarterback Tate Rodemaker and galloped into the end zone from 31 yards out to put the ‘Cats up 52-13.
“I’m just pleased we’re running the football [laughs],” Rodemaker said. “We’ve got some good backs and we can run the football, we just need to be patient. From here on out, all we play is playoff teams. There will be more closer games and if you play in close games, you’ve got to run the football.”
Dailey added, “Our running game is all thanks to the O-line. They got on their blocks, just doing what they’re taught to do. I’m just reading the holes and going to the end zone.”
For the second straight game, the ‘Cats struggled to get going out of the gates against the Bears’ defense –– managing only a Delroy Mattis 24-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead with 10:20 left in the first quarter.
The ‘Cats used a timely second-quarter burst to get some separation from the Bears.
Rodemaker hit Kaleb Robinson on an 18-yard touchdown pass to put Valdosta ahead 10-0 early in the second quarter.
The Valdosta defense was stellar all night, picking off Houston County quarterback Max Rigby twice –– one each from Maxwell Cherelus and Jaylin Alderman. The ferocious defense by the ‘Cats kept Rigby from connecting with his key receivers throughout as Rigby completed just 14-of-38 passes for 147 yards without a touchdown to go along with the two interceptions.
“We hadn’t gotten any turnovers lately,” Rodemaker said frankly. “We got two turnovers there in the first half and that was big. I thought we pulled out and played good. I tell you, they’ve got some quality wide receivers and a good quarterback. They’ve got a good football team, but I thought our defense played well the whole night. We didn’t just shut them out, but I thought we played well the whole night.”
In a battle between the two leading passers in the region, Rodemaker came out on the winning end despite being flushed out of the pocket occasionally. The senior went 15-of-26 for 244 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
Rodemaker’s lone interception nearly lit a game-changing fire under the Bears as outside linebacker Jayson Hodges picked off Rodemaker just 8 seconds into the second half and motored 39 yards to the end zone to pull the Bears within nine of the ‘Cats, 22-13.
In spite of the miscue, the ‘Cats weathered the storm by forcing a safety on the next Bears possession to extend the lead to 24-13.
Rodemaker hooked up with leading receiver Javonte Sherman on a 40-yard strike that set up a punishing 10-yard touchdown run by Dailey put more distance between the teams as Valdosta opened up a 31-13 advantage with 6:32 to go in the third quarter.
But Dailey wasn’t done there.
To end the third quarter, Robinson delivered on an impressive 26-yard run that saw him drag a host of Bears with him for extra yardage to put the ‘Cats in scoring range. Dailey got another crack at the Houston County defense on the next play and powered in a nine-yard run 8 seconds into the fourth to give Valdosta a 38-13 lead.
With game being blown open, Rodemaker and Sherman weaved magic once again. As the pocket collapsed around him with Bears closing in, Rodemaker stepped into open space just shy of the line of scrimmage and fired a bullet to Sherman in the middle of the field. Sherman shook free of the Bears’ secondary and rolled 41 yards to paydirt to sink the dagger even further as Valdosta took a 32-point lead with 10:16 to play.
Sherman finished with four catches for a team-high 128 yards and two touchdowns. Willie Trapp caught a team-high five passes for 57 yards in the victory.
From the running back position, Robinson had three carries for 37 yards while catching two passes for 35 yards and a touchdown. Fellow running back Shavious Wright added nine carries for 46 yards.
The ‘Cats went over the 50-point plateau for the fourth time this season and the first time since Sept. 13 against Colquitt.
Houston County: BYE
Valdosta: Travels to play Coffee County next Friday in Douglas.