It wasn’t pretty, but the Cedar Grove Saints earned their first state title in program history, winning the Class AAA championship over the GAC Spartans by a score of 30-19 on Friday at the Georgia Dome.
The No. 6 Saints (13-2) a No. 2 seed from Region 6, built a huge first half lead and then survived several turnovers and a furious fourth-quarter run by the top-ranked Spartans (13-2, No. 1 seed from Region 7) to hold on for the win. They also benefitted from a first-quarter injury to Spartans senior quarterback Davis Mills, who hurt his left knee on a scramble and didn’t return.
Mills, a Stanford commit, is considered by recruiting services as the top-rated pro-style quarterback in the country.
On the play, which came on GAC’s first possession, Mills scrambled 29 yards and appeared headed for the sideline before deciding to cut back and stay in bounds. On the cut, he was greeted by Haselwood, who threw his shoulder into Mills, connecting violently with Mills’ throat and chin area, knocking him to the ground. No penalty was called on the play, which happened with 8:35 left in the first quarter and with the Saints leading 7-0.
Haselwood, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound sophomore defensive back with offers from numerous FBS schools including Georgia, insists he wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt Mills, who stands at 6-foot-3, 192 pounds.
“I didn’t plan on hitting the man like that,” Haselwood said. “He just didn’t step out of bounds. I had to. I was really just trying to get the ball out, that’s why I used my forearm.”
In August, Mills suffered an undisclosed injury to the same knee he injured Friday. He required surgery and was expected to miss 3-4 months but returned to the Spartans after just three weeks. After the game, Mills said his knee buckled when he made the cut and before Haselwood’s hit. He added that he didn’t suffer a concussion.
The Saints took advantage of Mills’ absence, most notably when Tre Shaw intercepted Spartans backup Jonathan Rose, returning 34 yards for a touchdown with 1:09 left in the half. That gave the Saints a 23-3 lead they’d take into halftime.
The Saints opened the game’s scoring on their first possession when, on fourth-and-3, Jelani Woods threw screen pass to Shaw, who ran 32 yards and high-stepped into the end zone with 8:38 left in the first. GAC and Cedar Grove traded field goals before Saints running back Grant Walker ran 3 yards for a score to make it 17-3 with 2:28 left in the half. Shaw's interception return came on the very next play from scrimmage.
GAC would rally in the second half, scoring on a 3-yard Kyler McMichael run with 1:24 left in the third to bring the score to 23-9. Cedar Grove would turn the ball over its next three possessions, with the Spartans scoring 9 points off the miscues in the form of a 6-yard touchdown pass from Rose to Max Burke and a 32-yard Sean Henderson field goal, which brought the score to 23-19 with 6:03 remaining.
The Saints would seal the game on their next possession when Woods found Dennis Bell in the end zone on third-and-goal from the 17, bringing the score to its final margin with 2:16 left. Woods lobbed the ball to the end zone to Bell, who leaped over his defender to bring the ball down. The play was set up by Walker’s 50-yard run on the drive’s second play.
Woods, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior quarterback who is committed to Oklahoma State, said the Saints didn’t panic when GAC staged its comeback.
“We’ve been in that situation before,” said Woods, who finished 12 of 18 passing for 144 yards and two touchdowns to an interception. “We just had to stay calm and keep it going.”
Both the Spartans and Saints were aiming for their first-ever state title. Spartans coach Tim Hardy was pleased with his team's effort despite coming up short.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” said Hardy, in his fifth season at GAC. “They competed their tails off and fought hard. …We didn’t make enough plays to win.”
Saints coach Jimmy Smith, in his fourth season at Cedar Grove, said it’s a good feeling to bring home a championship trophy and he’s hoping the Saints aren’t done.
“It’s good for the community,” Smith said. “Hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re back here again.”
Walker led all rushers with 133 yards on 21 carries. Shaw had 71 receiving yards on five catches.
McMichael led the Spartans with 67 yards on 21 carries. Harrison Sloan had two catches for 55 yards and Max Burke had five catches for 51 yards. Rose was 13 of 21 passing for 99 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Cedar Grove 7 16 0 7 - 30
GAC 3 0 6 10 - 19
CG - Tre Shaw 32 pass from Jelani Woods (Solee Fofana kick)
GAC - Brooks Buce 40 FG
CG - Fofana 31 FG
CG - Grant Walker 3 run (Fofana kick)
CG - Tre’Christopher Shaw 35 INT return (kick failed)
GAC - Kyler McMichael 3 run (kick failed)
GAC - Max Burke 6 pass from Jonathan Rose (Sean Henderson kick)
GAC - Henderson 32 FG
CG - Dennis Bell 17 pass from Woods (Fofana kick)