Benedictine 49, Fitzgerald 26

All season long, the Benedictine Cadets have dominated their competition. Their season finale was no different.

Led by a big night from John Wesley Kenney, Tyleek Collins and their defense, the top-ranked Cadets rolled to a 49-26 victory over the No. 2 Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane in the Class AA championship on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

Kennedy racked up 123 all-purpose yards on offense and scored two touchdowns, including a 25-yard interception return on defense in the game’s waning minutes, putting the exclamation point on the first 15-0 season in program history. Collins added 95 rushing yards and two touchdowns while the defense forced three turnovers leading to 14 points.

For the Cadets, a No. 1 seed from Region 2, it’s their second AA title in three seasons. They beat GAC for the title in 2014.

“It’s great to go out my senior year with a bang,” said Kennedy, Benedictine’s leading rusher and receiver for the season. “Fifteen and 0, baby.”

The Purple Hurricane, Region 1’s top seed, were seeking their first state title since 1948, but instead came up short in the championship for a second year in a row. They lost to Pace Academy in last year’s AA title game after beating Benedictine in the quarterfinals. They finish with a record of 13-2.

Fitzgerald running back JD King (18) gets past the tackle attempt by Benedictine defensive back Bobby Baker (8). (Jason Getz for the AJC)

Things were looking up for the Purple Hurricane at the onset, when they used five plays to move the ball 80 yards for a score on the game’s opening possession. That drive was capped by JD King’s 36-yard run up the middle. King, an Oklahoma State commit who surpassed 5,800 rushing yards for his prep career, finished his final game with 100 rushing yards and a touchdown and 83 receiving yards on two catches.

Fitzgerald would miss the extra point following King’s score and the Cadets took over from there, scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions to build a 35-7 lead with 9:08 remaining in the half. In the first quarter, Terrick Smalls ran in a pair of 1-yard rushing touchdowns, then Travis Blackshear caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Nick Iannone on third-and-long. Kennedy then scored on a 7-yard run to open the second quarter and Collins added a 43-yard run for their final score of the half.

On Collins’ run, he appeared stopped for a 5-yard loss, but escaped Fitzgerald defenders and reversed field for the score.

The Purple Hurricane would break Benedictine’s run with a 33-yard touchdown reception by Damien Devine from James Graham, making it 35-12 heading into halftime after another Fitzgerald missed extra point.

The Purple Hurricane score was the beginning of what turned out to be a 20-0 run that pulled them to within 35-26 with 6:38 remaining.

After a goal line stand by the Purple Hurricane defense led to a Cadets turnover on downs in the second half’s opening possession, the Purple Hurricane went 99 yards on five plays, scoring on Graham’s 6-yard run. The score was set up by a King reception of 81 yards on the first play of the drive. Graham would then run in the 2-point conversion to make it a 35-20 game with 6:27 left in the third.

In the fourth quarter, Fitzgerald got its final score of the game after a Benedictine lost fumble led them on a nine-play, 60-yard drive that ended with another Graham touchdown run, this one from 5 yards out. On the Cadets’ next possession they lost another fumble, giving Fitzgerald a chance to pull within one score with 3:51 remaining. But the drive ended with Jonah Griffin picking off Graham with 1:48 remaining.

Up until Griffin’s interception, Fitzgerald’s run made it the closest game the Cadets have been a part of this season. Benedictine coach Danny Britt was proud his team stood tall.

“I was obviously very concerned,” said Britt, in his sixth season at Benedictine. “I wasn’t sure how we could stop some of the stuff they were doing offensively…It came down to making plays, and we did.”

The very next play from scrimmage after Griffin’s interception was Kennedy’s pick-six, which gave the Cadets a sense of revenge for Fitzgerald ending their season last year at 12-1 and with no chance of repeating as champions. The Purple Hurricane won last year’s matchup 54-28.

“It was great just knowing that I could put some more points on the board,” Kennedy said. “Like they say, defense wins championships.”

For Fitzgerald, it was another disappointing end to an otherwise great season. Purple Hurricane coach Jason Strickland said he’ll miss his senior class, which includes King and 23 other players.

“This is probably the best senior group that I’ve ever had,” said Strickland, in his fifth season at Fitzgerald. “They have been such a shining example and a glow of positivity for our entire community. They’ve done everything the right way and they’re the most deserving group of kids I’ve been around.

“We might have to reinvent ourselves once they graduate.”

Iannone finished 7 of 8 passing for 172 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, Jakeen Harris led the Cadets with 9.5 tackles, followed by Griffin with 8.5.

Graham led all rushers with 188 yards on 28 carries and was 7 of 16 passing for 162 yards and a touchdown to two interceptions. Devine had 55 receiving yards and a touchdown on 3 catches.

Fitzgerald 6 6 8 6 - 26

Benedictine 21 14 0 14 - 49

F- JD King 36 run (kick failed)

B - Terrick Smalls 1 run (run failed)

B - Smalls 1 run (John Wesley Kennedy run)

B - Travis Blackshear 64 pass from Nick Iannone (Jake Karesh kick)

B - Kennedy 7 run (Karesh kick)

B - Tyleek Collins 43 run (Karesh kick)

F - Damien Devine 33 pass from James Graham (kick failed)

F - Graham 6 run (Graham run)

F - Graham 5 run (run failed)

B - Collins 7 run (Karesh kick)

B - Kenney 43 INT return (Karesh kick)

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