Nick Simon/ Times-Georgian
There are only two words to describe the latest installment of the long-standing rivalry between the Carrollton and Villa Rica high school football teams on Friday night at Grisham Stadium — instant classic.
Up by two with 3:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, the No. 6 Trojan defense led by safety Reid Dedman stonewalled a potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt by the Wildcats to survive the rivalry barnburner, 36-34.
Carrollton head coach Sean Calhoun described how his team escaped Friday's wild ride on top.
It was actually the host Trojans (5-1, 3-1 Region 7-AAAAA) who were on their heels early as Villa Rica (4-3, 2-3) was the ones which came out firing from the opening series. On the first drive, a 42-yard pass from quarterback Kelvin Stevenson to receiver Javonte Hart would set up a 34-yard DuShaunte Holloway touchdown run to give the Wildcats an early 7-0 advantage. Being plagued by slow starts in recent weeks, Wildcat head coach Rico Zackery was pleased to see his team fired up early.
"We needed to come out fast, we needed to come out ready to play and we needed to come out with some energy. That's exactly what we had," Zackery said. "Anytime you score early, the momentum shifts to your side early on and that definitely sparked us a little bit."
But the momentum wouldn't last long for VR.
Midway through the first, the Trojans would get on the board when senior quarterback Mark Wright found a wide open Andy Smith for a 47-yard touchdown, where a successful two-point conversion afterward would put them ahead. A 29-yard Jaylan Thomas touchdown run on the next drive would give them a 15-7 lead heading into the second.
The Cats would pounce again by way of an 88-yard touchdown run by sophomore Phillip Zachery to pull to within one. But Wright and the Gold and Black attack would march right down the field before the half, setting up a five-yard Thomas touchdown to take a 22-14 lead into the locker room.
Getting the ball to begin the second half, the Trojans seemingly took complete control when Wright dialed up senior Dalton Benefield for a 53-yard touchdown pass. But the celebration was short-lived for the home team as Villa Rica quarterback Noah Best connected with Zachery on an 80-yard touchdown pass to make the game 29-21.
VR would swing even more momentum in its favor when corner Latrell Swanigan picked off a Wright pass to eventually set up Zachery's third touchdown of the night to make the score 29-28. The Trojans responded this time, using an 11-play, 67-yard drive on the next series which resulted with a Wright touchdown run to put them up 36-28 heading into the fourth.
With Wright sidelined with a late injury, the Trojan offense spent most of the fourth bleeding out the clock. But the Purple and Gold found their opportunity when the senior Swanigan picked off backup Trojan quarterback Tristen Allen for his second interception of the game to give VR the ball its own 8.
With Stevenson back under center for an injured Best, the Wildcat senior orchestrated an 8-play, 92-yard drive that ended with with a four-yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Mecose Todd to make the score 36-34 with 3:13 remaining.
"We just kept telling them that no matter what the score is, next play," Zackery said. "Play as hard as you can and they kept fighting and I'm very proud of the way they kept fighting."
Attempting the critical two-point try to tie the ballgame, a toss sweep to the bruising tailback Zachery looked like it would cross the goal-line before Dedman came flying in to snuff out the play at the one-yard line for a vital stop. Calhoun recalled the moments before the game-deciding play.
"They were pumping each other up and I was telling them, 'These are moments that you live for,'" Calhoun said. "We knew that they were going to try to get to the edge and we just found a way to make a stop. It was awesome."
Coming off a disappointing 45-24 loss at No. 1 Rome the week prior, Calhoun wanted to see how his players responded. He got his answer on Friday.
"In our Sunday meeting, I always do a definition of the week. (Last) week was resiliency and bouncing back from difficult situations. We were resilient (Friday). We played four quarters and that's what we train for," Calhoun said.
While a second consecutive loss in region certainly didn't do any favors to his team's positioning in the 7-AAAAA standings, Zackery was extremely proud of his Wildcats' effort.
"We talked out being able to come out and give it our best every play for four quarters and I think that they did that," Zackery said. "We weren't worried about the scoreboard or anything like that. We were focused on the next play and that's the type of the attitude that we had here (Friday)."
Friday's see-saw affair was the closest game this rivalry has seen since 1998 when Villa Rica handed eventual AA state champion Carrollton its only loss of the season in a 9-7 streetfight. The 2017 Carrollton-VR game will be talked about for years to come, something the Carrollton head coach immediately recognized.
"With the communities being so close, people will talk about this game for a long time. People will talk about that two-point play for a long time. And all of these kids on both sides made it happen and that's awesome," Calhoun said.