Oconee County High School’s football team advanced to its third consecutive Sweet 16 with a victory over Adairsville last Friday night.
It was not an easy win for the Warriors, though.
The Tigers roared out of the gate, starting the game with a touchdown and 2-point conversion. Adairsville took advantage of its momentum by attempting an onside kick. The Tigers recovered the ball and used the possession to score a second touchdown three minutes later.
A Darius Johnson Jr. interception stopped the Tigers and gave the Warriors a chance to get on the board. They did with a 1-yard touchdown from quarterback Jacob Wright.
But that didn't halt Adairsville, and to open the second quarter, a 20-yard passing touchdown gave the Tigers another 15-point lead.
“We weren’t struggling, they were doing what they practiced,” said Warriors head coach Travis Noland. “And they did it better than we prepared.”
With 8:25 left until halftime, C.J. Jones began the Warriors’ comeback and inched his team closer to the Tigers. He rolled into the end zone with a 13-yard touchdown that later helped him reach 1,001 rushing yards on the season.
The biggest test for the Oconee County offense, however, came with only seconds left in the half.
Trailing by a touchdown and a 2-point conversion, the Warriors knew that in order to catch the Tigers, they needed to strike within seconds.
Again, Wright took control of the ball and the game, finding a corner of the end zone to cut Adairsville’s lead to 2.
The Warriors opted to tie the game with a conversion with merely seconds on the board. A wide-open Jack Ward caught a pass from Wright, and the Warriors and Tigers were even at 22 as they entered the locker room.
“We didn't get the ball until the end of the first quarter. They gave us their best shot real early and we just had to be patient and wait our time,” Wright said. “It reminded me of Franklin, where they scored first play and they were up and then we just had to come back and bounce back and get it rolling.”
Johnson Jr. said there was a simple message conveyed in the locker room at halftime.
“Just don't panic, keep playing hard and things will go our way,” Johnson Jr. said.
Contrary to the first half, the second half was quiet for both sides, and neither team scored points in the third quarter.
Still, the decisive fourth quarter made for an excited Warrior Stadium, and Adairsville and Oconee County began their final drives to try and win the game.
The Warriors struck first with 9:14 on the clock. Wright completed an 18-yard pass to Whit Weeks who broke through for his first touchdown of the game.
Oconee County had its first lead of the night.
The Tigers tried to come back in the last few minutes of the game just as the Warriors did in the first half. A sack from Cam Eldridge forced a fourth down, but the Tigers fought their way down the field nonetheless.
With 10 seconds left, they were in the red zone and needed only a few more yards to tie – or win – the game.
Oconee County’s defense won the battle as Billy Lewis got an interception right in front of the goal line. His team-high sixth interception of the season secured a final 29-22 win for the Warriors.
“Always come together and fight, even the last play of the game,” Eldridge said. “You might have just given up but you just gotta keep on fighting.”
Weeks said the early stages of the game let him know the Warriors were in for a battle.
“When they went up 15-0, I knew we're just gonna have to grind it out,” Weeks said. “It's a long game. You can't win it in the first quarter. So, we just kept playing ball and we got it done.”
A senior, Wright stepped up as a leader in the game.
He scored two rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown while finishing the night with 33 rushing yards and 146 passing yards.
“I'm just not ready to be over,” Wright said. “I love these guys. And we got a goal that we're working towards.”
Appearing in the two most recent state championship games, the Warriors look to make that run again this year, but instead win it all in Atlanta.
“I thought it said a lot about our team and their character to come back from 15 down and tie it up going into halftime,” Noland said. “A lot of toughness, just hanging in there and fighting through.”
The victory was the ninth playoff win in three seasons for the Warriors and it marked Noland’s 11th. He became the all-time leader for playoff wins at Oconee County.
The Warriors will travel to Crisp County this Friday for the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs. It will be the first-ever matchup for the Cougars and Oconee County.