Photo by Derrick Mahone Rex Mill Middle School coach Rodney Screen congratulates running back Emmanuel Clark on scoring his second touchdown in the Yellow Jackets' 14-8 win over Lovejoy for the Clayton County Middle School Championship.
HAMPTON — Rex Mill Middle coach Rodney Screen kept preaching to his Yellow Jackets all week and all Tuesday evening that their defense is what wins championships.
And after Rex Mill linebacker Derrick Gibbs’ game-saving tackle that stopped Lovejoy’s Jamonne Williams short on a fourth-and-four play late in the fourth quarter, Screen looked like a prophet.
Williams tackle preserved the Yellow Jackets 14-8 win as they clinched the Clayton County Middle School Championship on a breezy night at Twelve Oaks Stadium.
The play salted away the Yellow Jackets’ second county title in three years, despite a salty defensive effort by the Lovejoy Cougars — one that held Rex Mill to its lowest scoring output of the season.
And despite being soaking wet as the victim of a Gatorade bath in the cool night air, the first-year head coach was all smiles.
“This is a great feeling,” Screen said. “And this guy right here is my player of the game. He ran so hard.”
As he spoke, Screen grabbed hold of Emmanuel Clark, the running back who rushed for 57 yards on six carries and scored both Rex Mill touchdowns, including a nifty 21-yard touchdown scamper with 4:53 left in the third quarter that proved to be the game winner.
“It feels good to be able to win like this,” Clark said. “I first have to thank my team for blocking so well for us. We won as a team. And I thank coach Screen for helping me to be the best player and best running back I can.”
Rex Mill began the evening in the same dominating fashion that it maintained all season. After forcing Lovejoy to a three and out on its first possession, the Yellow Jackets took over and proceeded to march down the field on a physical 10-play, 73 yard drive.
And after Kaziah Hall and Tajia Cofer ripped off runs of 16 and 20 yards respectively, running back Emmanuel Clark ended the drive with a on1-yard touchdown plunge. Rex Mill’s failed two point conversion attempt kept the score at 6-0.
The Cougars answered in quick-strike fashion as Williams took the handoff and shimmied through several Rex Mill defenders before breaking free and outrunning the rest of the Yellow Jackets defense on his way to a 67-yard scoring run.
Williams scored on a two-point conversion as Lovejoy an 8-6 lead.
A couple of miscues negated potential Rex Mill scoring opportunities. The first happened when Josh Lowery took a pitch and darted to the right sideline, scoring from 27 yards out. But the touchdown was called back for a holding penalty and Lovejoy’s defense bowed up for the next two plays, stopping Rex Mill on downs.
After a Lovejoy fake punt failed, Rex Mill took over again on the Cougars 27-yard line, only to witness quarterback Javon Henderson throw an interception to Kolby Williams as time expired in the first half.
The two-point deficit would be the first time all season Rex Mill would play from behind. And Screen credits his players for not flinching at adversity when it came.
“I told them in the locker room that this was going to be a test of their character,” Screen said. “We have a history against (Lovejoy). They are tough. They’re rugged. They fight all the way to the end.”
After Clark’s third quarter touchdown, Lovejoy turned the ball over on downs, and Rex Mill began to march for what looked like another scoring drive. But on second and goal from the Lovejoy seven yard line, Clark fumbled the ball fighting for extra yards and a third touchdown and Lovejoy recovered at the one.
But Screen refused to let his team drop their heads.
“I told them on that last drive that this was a championship drive,” he said. “But after the fumble, I just told them that it was the defense that needed win it now.”
For Screen, it was his first championship — a good, high pressured start to his Rex Mill tenure.
“Now they’re going to expect this every year. Maybe I’ll just retire on top,” Screen said with a grin.
Williams led the Cougars with 79 yards on eight carries and the 67-yard score. Meshael Custis, the younger brother of Lovejoy High star and Georgia Tech commitment Travis Custis, chipped in 60 yards on 10 carries.