By Christian Malone

christian.malone@gaflnews.com



MARIETTA -- The Wildcats' run of good fortune finally ran out.

Valdosta's playoff run ended with a 17-14 loss to Walton in the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals Friday night at Raider Valley.

The Wildcats end the 2004 season 8-5, in a season where they fought back from a 3-4 record to make it to the final eight with an underclassmen-laden team.

"I'm very proud of these kids," Valdosta head coach Rick Darlington said. "They played hard all night, like they have all season, they hung in there, they fought back, they made some plays. They played as hard as they can play. Walton's got a good team, very physical. Our defense played great.

"The difference tonight was we made mistakes, and they didn't. We just made too many mistakes to win against a team like that."

Darlington said going into the game that whoever won the field position battle would probably win the game. Walton won the field position battle, and ultimately, the game.

"It's hard to score points when you're starting way down there (in your own end of the field)," Darlington said. "Their kicker's amazing, and their punter pinned us down a couple times, too. And then they got the ball down there (inside the VHS 20), and they scored both times."

Both of Walton's first-half scores came off short fields.

On the first play of Valdosta's second possession, VHS tried a direct snap to receiver Steve Dawson, going in motion. But the exchange wasn't clean, and the ball fell to the ground. Walton's Garrett Ryan recovered the ball at the Wildcat 16, and the Raiders had the first scoring chance of the game. The Wildcats stopped the Raiders three-and-out, but Craig Camay kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Raiders a 3-0 lead.

After Valdosta went three-and-out again, Walton's Michael Strickland caught Tuzer Chism's punt at his own 40, got a wall, and returned it to the VHS 16. Forte broke an 11-yard run on the next play, then a penalty drove the Raiders back to the 10. But on third down, quarterback Ross Applegate lofted a fade to the end zone, and Strickland ran and caught it, giving Walton a 10-0 lead at halftime.

One of Walton's strengths is the way they play good, fundamental defense. In the first half, the Raiders held Valdosta to just 36 yards of offense. They bottled up Valdosta's two main running plays, the inside zone and the counter, and refused to let the Wildcats get any big plays.

Corey Council changed that, catching Ross Garrett's punt at the Wildcat 40, before some blocks and took him off down the Walton sideline. He raced down inside the 5 before being hauled down at the 1. Two plays later, backup quarterback Scott Shuman dove over the top for the score.

Then Lady Luck, which has so often given Valdosta a boost when the 'Cats needed it, came back and bit them. On second-and-19 from the Walton 17, the Raiders handed to star running back Justin Forte. Council corralled Forte, then punched the ball out of his hand. That should have been a break for Valdosta.

But the ball hit the ground, then bounced straight back to Forte, who caught it still running, and took it the rest of the way for an 83-yard touchdown, making it 17-7.

"When the ball bounced up (to Forte) after Corey stripped it, you just sense that it wasn't meant to be," Darlington said.

Valdosta wasn't dead yet, though. Shuman stayed in the game, giving the Wildcats more of a passing threat. He threw a screen pass to Scott who got some blocks, then shed three tacklers and took off running down the Valdosta sideline. Scott didn't stop until he'd crossed the goal line on an 80-yard touchdown catch.

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