By Josh Kraeger
Special to the Daily
It was a field-goal frenzy Friday night at Southern Crescent Stadium as the Ware County Gators upset the North Clayton Eagles 22-12.
From the opening kickoff, the Ware County Gators showcased their unconventional play-calling. Their onside kick was unsuccessful, giving the Eagles great field position at their own 35-yard line.
North Clayton struck swiftly. Four plays later, on first down and 10 to go from the 46-yard line, North Clayton junior quarterback Dennis Johnson launched a 54-yard pass to junior wide receiver Khalil Stinson for the touchdown. The Eagles were unsuccessful on the point-after-attempt, giving them a 6-0 lead with 10:34 remaining in the opening quarter.
It was all about the Gators for the remainder of the half. Six plays after North Clayton's score, Ware county responded with a 31-yard field goal by senior kicker Zack Griffin. Three plays later, after a penalty pushed them back to the two-yard line, sophomore running back LaDarrius Mathis fumbled the ball. The Gators recovered on the five-yard line, giving them first down and goal to go at the five-yard line.
The Eagles committed another offside penalty, and Ware County junior quarterback Josh Bennett ran a quarterback sneak for a one-yard touchdown. The point-after-attempt was successful, giving the Gators a 10-6 lead with 5:09 left in the first quarter.
It was a defensive struggle for the remainder of the first half, as North Clayton continued to commit penalties and turnovers, including an interception thrown by senior running back Michael Ross with the Eagles deep in Gator territory.
Ware County controlled the ball, and the pace of the game for the remainder of the half, as it finished off the second quarter with a 37-yard field goal by Griffin as time expired.
The story remained the same in the third quarter, as Ware County controlled the clock on their opening drive. The drive lasted six and a half minutes, spanning 13 plays and resulting in a 32-yard field goal by Griffin. The field goal gave the Gators a 16-6 lead with 5:21 remaining in the third quarter.
North Clayton attempted to answer on offense, but once again came up short. This time was the result of an interception thrown by Johnson.
The Gators had possession on the Eagles' 29-yard line, and their offense threatened to score again. North Clayton's defense held them to minimal yardage, but Griffin connected on another field goal for the Gators, this one from 35 yards out. Griffin's fourth field goal of the night gave Ware County a commanding 19-6 lead with 1:15 left in the third quarter.
Ware County attempted more trickery, as it attempted an onside kick but failed as the ball did not go 10 yards from the spot of the kick. The failed attempt gave North Clayton promising field position, as it started the drive on the 50-yard line. Freshman running back Christopher Weems fueled the drive with several big plays. However, the Eagles once again came up short, failing to convert on fourth down and 11 yards to go from the 15-yard line.
The Eagles' defense made a big stop, forcing the Gators to punt with 5:15 left to go in the fourth quarter. However, their efforts were squandered when Johnson threw his second interception of the game on the next play.
Ware County continued to run down the clock, as it had all game. It succeeded, running nearly three more minutes off the clock, and putting three more points on the board with Griffin's fifth field goal of the night. The 38-yard field goal by Griffin gave Ware County a 22-6 lead with 2:22 left in the fourth quarter.
North Clayton didn't give up though, as Johnson and Mathis led the team down the field on a late drive. Johnson connected with Stinson on an 18-yard pass for a touchdown with 1:14 remaining in the game. The Eagles went for two, hoping to cut into Ware County's lead and make it a one-possession game. They were unsuccessful, and the score remained 22-12.
After an unsuccessful onside kick attempt by Johnson, Bennett ran out the clock for the Gators, kneeling and ending the Eagles' hopes for a state championship.
Senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera paced the Eagles' defense with 15 tackles, including five tackles for a loss. Junior Elijah Redmond also had a major contribution with 11 tackles. The offense was paced by Johnson and Stinson. Johnson was 8/14 for 126 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, while also rushing three times for 23 yards. Stinson had five receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
The Eagles played a great season, and will look to continue their success next season with 38 players returning, including many of their starters.
The Gators will face Whitewater at home next week, after Whitewater upset No. 1 seed Northside Warner-Robins.