The Spartans knew to expect a battle well before kickoff last Friday.
Athens Academy’s football team hosted Mount Pisgah in the first round of the Class A-Private state playoffs. The Spartans won in overtime, 27-21.
It was an up-and-down game for numerous reasons and it nearly ended the Spartans’ season, but the team rallied together to make big plays when necessary.
That started with a new pregame ritual.
Senior defensive star Johnerio Holt said the team walks onto the field before every game and, while encircling the ‘A’ logo on the 50-yard line at Slaughter Field, the players all rip off their shirts and throw them onto the logo in a pile. Then, head coach Josh Alexander has the seniors stand inside the circle as he delivers a pregame speech.
Holt said last Friday’s words from Alexander gave him and his teammates all the motivation they needed to win the nail-biter against Mount Pisgah.
“He had a speech that just stood out to everybody,” Holt said. “He said, ‘Don't do this for yourself. Don't do this for the school. Don't do this for the academy. Come out and do it for your seniors.’ Every now and then, he'll say it and it'll come off kind of cliché. But [last week], I think everybody heard him. And no matter how bad or how well we did stuff, it made everybody play better.”
That determination was needed in the overtime affair.
Spartans running back Tre Hawkins plowed through a defender to score the game’s first touchdown with 5:09 left in the first quarter. The game had been a defensive battle to that point but it appeared the Spartans were finding a groove.
Then, Mount Pisgah responded with a long drive, capped off by a 38-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
The Patriots went further ahead with another touchdown pass with 11:34 left in the second quarter, though they missed the extra point attempt, making it a 13-7 game.
But then Athens Academy’s Gio Newsome swung the game again by returning a punt 45 yards for a touchdown at the 6:50 mark of the second quarter. That score put Athens Academy ahead 14-13 – a score that held till the final 3:50 of the contest.
“Our coach called ‘wall right’ and he told me to run right,” Newsome said. “I saw the block, I saw the seam. I saw the kid almost tackle me. I had to stay up on my feet for that. I had to go on the outside, cut back in and, once I saw that seam, I knew it was over.”
Jeremiah Wingfield pushed the Spartans further ahead on a short touchdown run with 3:50 to play. The 21-13 score seemingly put Mount Pisgah away but that’s when the game hit another gear.
The Patriots scored on a 19-yard passing touchdown to one of their top players, tight end Cole Spence. They needed a 2-point conversion to tie the game. Spence was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after spiking the ball, moving the 2-point try back to the 19-yard line.
Mount Pisgah converted the 2 points on a pass caught just inside the left pylon. Alexander and others on the Athens Academy sidline argued that the ball was bobbled by the receiver and should therefore be ruled an incompletion. After short meeting between officials, the call stood.
From there, Athens Academy could not generate a deep touchdown throw and neither could Mount Pisgah, sending the game to overtime.
Mount Pisgah got the ball first and attempted a touchdown throw. Spartans freshman Tristan Puckett intercepted the pass in the end zone – on a play that Holt said “easily changed everybody’s mood” – meaning the next score would end the game unless the Patriots forced double overtime.
Spartans quarterback Sam Bush took a snap at the 15-yard line, ran outside to the left side and snuck inside the pylon to score the winning touchdown in walk-off fashion.
“I knew it was an outside run and I just needed to get to the pylon and get into the end zone,” Bush said. “I saw a little bit of space on the outside and a hole and I've got to hit it and score.”
Unfortunately for Athens Academy, it played most of the game without its No. 1 running back, junior Tre Hawkins.
Hawkins left the field with 2:30 left in the first quarter. Trainers attended to his left leg and, by the 6:50 mark of the second quarter, Hawkins was helped to the locker room. He returned to the stadium after halftime where he stood with crutches and watched the remainder of the game.
Hawkins suffered an LCL injury but Alexander said it was not serious.
In the interim, freshmen Jamari Welch and Wingfield plugged in at running back. The duo combined for 38 yards on 10 carries.
“They played fantastic,” Bush said. “They're real young so they haven't been able to get in as much as they should. They're very talented and I feel really good about them going forward.”
Alexander praised the effort by Wingfield and Welch, pointing out they also played a lot of defensive snaps.
“You never want to play kids both ways but both of those running backs were flipping over and playing on defense,” Alexander said. “If you get a guy that's a senior playing both ways, it's not ideal but you have to do that at times. When you get a freshman playing both ways, that's tough. But they stepped it up.”
Bush went 3-for-11 through the air with 62 yards passing. He ran it 27 times for 129 yards and the game-winning score.
Taylor Muir and Holt led a strong defensive performance with Holt totaling five tackles with a sack and Muir finishing with four tackles and a sack.
K.J. Whitehead and Wingfield also finished with five total tackles.
The Spartans will be on the road this Friday against a familiar foe: Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy.
ELCA got a first-round bye after Heritage forfeited the game last week.
Athens Academy is 0-4 in head-to-head battles with ELCA. The Spartans lost to ELCA in the first round of the 2009 playoffs before dropping consecutive state title bouts against ELCA in 2017 and 2018. ELCA beat Athens Academy in the 2019 quarterfinals.
No matter their head-to-head history, the Spartans hope to score the road upset this Friday.
“We need to execute better,” Bush said. “We need to watch their film and see what they're doing and, hopefully, get that win.”