CARROLLTON, Ga. –– An obstacle no more.
For the first time since 2016, the Valdosta Wildcats (7-4) punched their ticket to the GHSA Class 6A State Semifinals with a 36-15 win over the Carrollton Trojans (8-3) Friday night.
Though they won the game by three touchdowns, the 'Cats had to dig deep in the third quarter to put the Trojans away.
"I thought they persevered pretty well," Valdosta head coach Rush Propst said after the game. "I thought we had ebbs and flows, ups and downs. We started off really good, got up 14-0 and things are going good and then all of a sudden, we just went into a tank. Our body language wasn't good, we look like we were tired. I do think the effects of the trip to Evans were still apparent. I think that had a lot to do with it.
"We slept in the hotel all last night, all today –– I had to wake them up to get on the bus. People don't understand how hard it is to win on the road. We've taken the two farthest trips I've ever taken back-to-back; going to (Evans) and then turning around and coming over here on the west side of the state, it's really tough. I'm proud that we persevered. About mid-third quarter, we just turned it on and the rest is history."
Following a safety by the 'Cats with 44 seconds left in the second quarter, the Trojans found an opening to go ahead.
Coming out of the locker room at halftime, down 14-9, the Trojans took their first and only lead of the night as quarterback James McCauley connected with receiver Grant Briscoe on a 20-yard score to take a 15-14 lead with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Four minutes and 30 seconds later, the 'Cats responded.
Junior quarterback Amari Jones punched in a score from five yards out and the 'Cats converted a two-point conversion to make it a 22-15 Valdosta lead.
Momentum was still not quite in the claws of the 'Cats, but a near-catastrophe was the wind that turned the tide their way.
Late in the third quarter, Jones appeared to throw a sure interception to a Carrollton defensive back in the end zone. Fortunately for Valdosta, the ball hit the defender squarely in the hands before falling harmlessly to the turf.
On the next play, Jones handed off to Kaleb Robinson, who powered in from two yards away to open up a 29-15 lead with 1:30 remaining in the third quarter.
"Big," Propst said of the dropped interception. "The guy could've picked it and he didn't. You've got to make plays in those situations, and he didn't. We ended up scoring and getting ahead. ... Any time you win like that, it's big. A quarterfinal win on the road after traveling as far as we have the last two weeks, I can't think of any time in my career that we've ever done this."
For the second week in a row, the 'Cats got a lift from their running game –– specifically, junior running back Terrell Denson.
Denson was a force out of the backfield Friday night with 13 carries for 135 yards, including a scintillating 86-yard touchdown dash just 15 seconds into the fourth quarter.
On second-and-8 from Valdosta's 14, Denson exploded through the middle of the Carrollton defense, barely getting touched as he motored all the way to the end zone to extend the Valdosta lead to 21 points.
As the Trojans drove to make the score more respectable late in the fourth, the 'Cats had other plans as junior cornerback Jadarian Rhym picked off McCauley with 55 seconds left –– cueing the celebration from the Valdosta sideline.
Valdosta finished with 298 total yards and 267 yards of total offense.
Jones completed 11-of-22 passes for 101 yards, but factored significantly in the running attack –– carrying the ball 17 times for 63 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior Javonte Sherman had a pair of catches for 46 yards while Tajh Sanders led the team with seven catches for 34 yards. Aalah Brown, who had a would-be touchdown catch ruled incomplete, had two catches for 21 yards.
Defensively, Valdosta forced two turnovers by way of interception –– one by Rhym and another by freshman defensive end Eric Brantley.
Carrollton posted 374 total yards and 276 yards of total offense as McCauley completed 13-of-29 passes for 179 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Trojans senior running back Christian Lett had 17 carries for 87 yards in his final high school game. Junior wide out Ace Williamson caught five passes for 80 yards, followed by Briscoe's four grabs for 48 yards with one touchdown.
Valdosta remains on the road as they travel 262 miles up to Buford, Ga., for a meeting with the Buford Wolves in next week's state semifinals. Buford defeated Langston Hughes 44-15 on Friday.