VALDOSTA – Playing in what head coach Shelton Felton called his team's Super Bowl, the Valdosta Wildcats gave the Lee County Trojans all they could handle.
The Trojans, who came into Friday night's game averaging 45 points per game, were held to 32 points below their average as they held on the beat the 'Cats 13-6 in Valdosta's final regular season game.
"It's emotional, man," Felton said with tears welling in his eyes. "My seniors, they fought hard. They fought their butt off and we battled. That's all you can ask for, to battle to the end and we did that."
Leading 13-0, it appeared the Trojans were about to put the 'Cats out of their misery on their home field as senior running back Julius McClellan busted a 54-yard run that looked like a sure touchdown before the 'Cats brought him down at the 4.
Rather than punch in the game-sealing touchdown, the Trojans were denied on downs as the 'Cats stopped the Trojans on the 1-yard line to take over with 56 seconds left in their season.
"That's a credit to my coaching staff and my kids," Felton said of the late stop. "They kept fighting, they kept playing, they did what they were supposed to do and they didn't quit."
Needing to 99 yards to tie or take the lead on a two-point conversion, the 'Cats took their shots downfield with wide receiver Willie Almond at the quarterback position.
Almond went 0 for 4 on the final drive as his final pass that appeared to caught by Jalen Whitehead tiptoeing along the Valdosta sideline was ruled incomplete. A completion would've given the 'Cats a first down and stopped the clock.
The Trojans took a knee in the victory formation to escape Bazemore-Hyder Stadium with the victory.
Freshman phenom running back Ousmane Kromah, who entered the game averaging 9.9 yards per carry, was kept in check by the Valdosta defense Friday. Having rushed for an even 1,300 yards and a Region 1-6A leading 16 touchdowns through nine games, Kromah finished with 20 carries for only 58 yards with one touchdown.
The Valdosta defense also kept the region's leading passer from finding his groove as Lee County's sophomore quarterback Chris Martin had a quiet night – completing 7 of 14 passes for 61 yards with one touchdown.
"That was a great defensive job led by our defensive coordinator, Coach (Jeff) Kent and the defensive staff," Felton said. "They did a good job scheming up everything and these kids played lights out. They played with a passion and they played with their heart."
Valdosta finished with 180 of total offense, once again relying on its rushing attack for yardage. The 'Cats carried the ball 36 times for 121 yards, led by seniors Terrell Denson and Kaleb Robinson.
Denson had a team-high 16 carries for 71 yards, while Robinson finished with 11 carries for 49 yards.
Valdosta cut into the lead with 4:27 remaining as the team used a 47-yard punt return by senior Chris Wolfe to set themselves up with favorable field position. Wolfe fielded the punt at the 17-yard line and motored all the way down to the Lee County 36.
Almond began the drive with a 5-yard run on a keeper, then completed a 7-yard strike to senior Nevin Spivey.
The drive stalled briefly as the Trojans sacked Almond for a 12-yard loss to bring up second-and-21 from the 36.
Robinson gained 3 yards on a hard run, then Almond hit Spivey again on a 32-yard bomb to Spivey to get down to the 1.
Well into scoring range, the 'Cats looked to an unlikely target to put points on the board.
On second-and-goal from the 3, Almond faked a handoff and rolled a couple of steps to his left before finding sophomore defensive end Eric Brantley in the end zone for a touchdown with 4:27 left.
Almond finished the game 8 of 14 for 59 yards with one touchdown. Spivey led the receiving corps with three catches for 46 yards.
For the Trojans, they finish the regular season 9-1 and finish 3-0 to win the Region 1-6A championship for the fourth consecutive year. They head into the Class 6A playoffs on a four-game winning streak.
A tumultuous season ends with a 4-6 record for the 'Cats under Felton, who was had his interim head coach tag removed by a unanimous vote by the Valdosta Board of Education Tuesday evening.
The 160 points the team allowed this season is the fewest in a season since 2014 under former coach Rance Gillespie when the team finished 9-2.
As the team bids farewell to several key cogs to their successes this season on both sides of the ball, a new day begins with Felton at the helm going into 2022.
"I think the future is bright, but we've got to start working," Felton said looking ahead to the offseason. "We can't take no time off. We've got to start working with the young kids in our feeder program and we've got to build it back. These seniors, they left a landmark. No matter what situation, we fight, we don't give up and they've done that."
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.