After all the talk about all of the speed, toughness, agility and talent that has catapulted Cedar Grove into the conversation as one of the best programs in Georgia, it was intelligence that got them over the hump in Friday’s 28-18 semifinal against Greater Atlanta Christian.
Senior linebacker Isaiah Ratcliff’s interception at the goal line, with GAC (12-2) poised to cash in a turnover and take the lead midway through the fourth quarter, was the biggest play of the night, as the Saints advanced to the Class AAA finals for the third time in four years.
The Spartans fought back from a 14-3 halftime deficit and trailed 21-18 with 6 minutes remaining in regulation, when they punted and pinned Cedar Grove (12-2) inside its 10-yard line. After a low shotgun snap on second-and-seven pushed the Saints back to their 1-yard line, sophomore running back Rashod Dubinion – who had a 60-yard touchdown run in the first quarter – was stripped by a GAC defender as he ran off tackle from the wildcat formation and the Spartans recovered at the Saints’ 9-yard line.
On third-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Ratcliff’s football smarts kicked in.
“I saw how far [GAC receiver Evan Byrd] was split out, and so I knew the only thing he could run was a slant,” said Ratcliff, one of the state’s best linebackers. “When I saw it was a pass, I knew it was coming, so I just stepped in front of him and picked it off.”
Ratcliff returned the pick to the Cedar Grove 35-yard line. Still, with 4:40 left on the clock and GAC holding two timeouts, the game was far from over. But that’s where the intelligence of the Saints’ coaching staff showed itself. Anticipating tight ballgames like this one, head coach Miguel Patrick and his staff built an ultra-tough non-region schedule that included games against 2017 Class AA state champion Hapeville Charter, Alabama Class AAAAAAA runner up Central-Phenix City, Colorado Class AAAAA quarterfinalist Valor Christian, and Class AAAAAAA quarterfinalist McEachern.
The Saints executed their power running game to near perfection on the most important drive of the season, and senior Chavon Wright capped an eight-play drive with a 26-yard touchdown run off tackle to essentially end the game with just :42 seconds left.
“Our guys are battle tested,” Patrick said. “We’ve faced adversity before. Our schedule prepared us for games like this. Hats off to coach [Tim] Hardy and his staff. They have a great team and had their kids really prepared. I can’t tell you how proud I am of our guys for the way they stepped up and handled the pressure.
“And Chavon Wright showed why he is one of the best backs in this state,” Patrick said. “That’s the guy we start the game with, and close the game with, and he did it tonight.”
On the other side of the field, Hardy and his staff consoled their team, congratulating them on a stellar effort. The Spartans forced Cedar Grove into a three-and-out to open the second half, and went on 15-play, 83-yard drive to cut the deficit to 14-11 after a 2-yard touchdown run by senior Tyler Bride and a 2-point conversion pass.
Cedar Grove countered with a 6-play, 60-yard touchdown drive on its next possession, as junior quarterback Austin Smith skipped in from three yards out to push the lead to 21-11. But GAC responded immediately on the final play of the third quarter as senior Zac Mixon returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to make it a three-point game, 21-18, heading into the fourth quarter.
“These guys fought their tails off. Everybody said we were going to come in here and get whipped,” Hardy said. “But the competed hard all night and the character they showed was just outstanding. To go toe-to-toe with the defending state champs, a great team that is well coached, it says a lot about this team. At the end of the day they just made a few more plays than we did, but our young men represented their school and their community extremely well. I’m so proud of them.”
Cedar Grove will face Region 1 champion Crisp County (11-3), Saturday at 1 p.m. at Georgia State Stadium in the Class AAA finals. The Cougars advanced to the championship game for the first time in school history with a 14-6 win over Jenkins.
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