One by one, a handful of dejected Apalachee seniors walked off their home field for the last time Friday, Nov. 12, and, before getting to the locker room, stopped for a brief moment at the school’s victory bell behind the end zone by the team fieldhouse.
Most of them who walked by stood in silent reflection, seemingly trying to make sense of how a night that started out so promisingly ended in bitter disappointment and the end of their high school playing careers.
“I don’t want to come off the field yet,” one said quietly.
On the other end of R. Harold Harrison Stadium, a jubilant Lithia Springs squad was in celebration mode after rallying from down 16 points at halftime and defeating the Wildcats 30-27 in overtime in the first round of the GHSA Class 5A playoffs. Junior quarterback Jai’que Hart’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Taye Seymore on the Lions’ first offensive play of the extra period answered an Apalachee field goal and put Lithia Springs (5-6) in the second round, where it’ll face Whitewater on Nov. 19. With the loss, the Wildcats, who were playing in their first postseason game since 2009, finished the year 5-6 and saw their four-game winning streak snapped in about as heartbreaking a manner as fourth-year Apalachee head coach Tony Lotti could imagine.
“Pretty cruel,” Lotti said. “The kids fought hard all night. The bottom line is we did not make the plays we needed to make when we needed to make them. There were two key points there where we flinched, and that’s just how it goes. And when you get to this point, unfortunately you don’t get a redo. I’m proud of the fact that our kids accomplished something great and got into the playoffs. I’m pleased with their effort and proud of that senior group who believed in what we were doing. We got in (the postseason), and now we’ve just got to work on staying in going forward.”
Making it even more difficult to absorb the loss for Apalachee was the fact that the game wouldn’t have even made it to overtime, if not for a missed extra point by the Lions with 41 seconds left after they had forced a turnover inside their own 10-yard line and gone on a seven-minute, 17-play, 93-yard drive that tied the game at 24-24. Led by Hart — the talented junior who entered the game with nearly 2,500 passing yards on the season and threw for 174 more Friday and three touchdowns — the Lions converted a couple of key third-downs on the drive, including a 19-yard pass from Hart to Devon Green on third-and-12 down to the Apalachee 21. The Wildcats were called for a helmet-to-helmet defensive penalty on the play, which moved the ball down to their 11, and a few plays later Hart snuck the ball inside the 1 to set up a first-and-goal opportunity.
The Apalachee defense stuffed Hart at the line on the first attempt to get across the goal line, but the Lions caught the Wildcats off guard on the following play as tailback Demarco Brownlee took the snap a few yards back and tossed it to Davion Leslie Jr. in the end zone to tie the game. Apalachee got pressure on Lithia Springs kicker Shawn Rigdon on the point-after try, and he pushed it off to the right, leaving the Wildcats with renewed hope entering overtime.
After losing the coin toss, though, and having to go on offense first in overtime, the Wildcats failed to pick up a first down and had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Brody Ham.
Lithia Springs wasted no time going for the home run as Hart took the first snap and delivered a strike over the top of the Apalachee defense to a wide-open Seymore in the end zone for the final dagger.
“We knew it was coming, and we just got misaligned,” Lotti said. “We were sitting there calling the play as a coaching staff, and maybe I should have called a timeout before they snapped it. You just never have a good feeling as coach when you go first (in overtime) and you have to settle for a field goal. I felt like it was key for us going in to try to keep them off the field offensively, and I felt like we did a pretty good job of that for most of the game. But eventually they were going to get on the field. The quarterback’s very talented, and (Lithia Springs) played very hard, too. The bottom line is we had a chance to put them away, and we didn’t. And we paid the price for not doing that. With young playoff teams, that’s the mistake they often make.”
Apalachee did indeed approach Friday’s game against the high-powered Lions with the aim of getting an early lead and playing ball control with its run-heavy Wing-T offense. From that perspective, the night couldn’t have started off much better for the Wildcats, who marched 80 yards in seven plays on the opening drive of the game to seize a quick 7-0 advantage. Senior running back Colby Sikes ripped off a 61-yard run down to the Lions’ 7, and three plays later quarterback Isaiah Skinner rolled out to his left and hit Jordan Wilson in the back of the end zone from 4 yards away for the score.
The Wildcats then caught the Lions by surprise with a successful onside kick, and a 40-yard field goal by Ham pushed the Apalachee lead to 10-0 with 4:47 to go in the first quarter and before Lithia Springs had even run an offensive play.
The Lions responded with a six-play, 52-yard scoring drive, which ended with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Hart to Green and a two-point conversion that cut the Wildcats’ lead to 10-8. Apalachee, though, answered back with its own six-play drive, which covered 53 yards and ended with running back Jeff Roberts finding the end zone from 2 yards out on the first play of the second quarter to push the lead to make it 17-8.
The Wildcats ended the first half on a high note with a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ran out the final 5:01 of the half and was capped by Sikes’ 2-yard touchdown run on an untimed down resulting from a facemask penalty against the Lions.
Apalachee ran 31 plays to Lithia Springs’ 18 in the first half and looked to be in good shape with a 24-8 advantage at the break. But the Lions, running a significantly up-tempo offense that made it difficult for the Apalachee defense to generate much pressure, flipped the script in the third quarter, running 21 plays to the Wildcats’ 5 and reeling off 10 unanswered points — first a 28-yard field goal from Rigdon and then a 14-yard touchdown pass from Hart to Green on the final play of the period that put the finishing touches on a 12-play, 83-yard drive and trimmed the deficit to 24-18.
The Wildcats still appeared to be in a pretty good spot on the ensuing possession when Sikes broke off an impressive 24-yard run on fourth-and-2 down to the Lithia Springs 9, setting up a first-and-goal with under eight minutes to play. But on the next play, Sikes took another handoff and was hit hard from the side by Javon Jennings, who jarred the ball loose, right into the hands of Lithia Springs teammate Jordan Turner, setting up the long game-tying drive.
Sikes would get one more carry in overtime, but the fumble was a frustrating way to end a spectacular night — 18 carries for 175 yards and a touchdown — one of his best performances in a stellar career at Apalachee and an exceptional senior season that saw him rush for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns and become the second player in school history to break the 1,000-yard barrier in a season. Roberts, who moved to Barrow County and Apalachee for his senior year, added 102 rushing yards on 15 touches Friday as the Wildcats rolled up 287 yards on the ground in total.
“The kid for Lithia Springs had a good, clean hit leading with his helmet, and it was textbook,” Lotti said of the crucial turnover. “I just had a one-on-one conversation (with Sikes) because I know the type of kid he is. He’s going to beat himself up over that, but the bottom line is we had 48 minutes to win that football game, and we do not make it this far without him. That drive was just a really huge point in the game — because we were going in to score, and if we score we’ve eaten up that much more clock, and you’re talking a two-possession game.
“The reality is, in the playoffs, every team is going to end up crying except for one. Unfortunately, we’re one of the ones in there consoling each other. Winning the game just was not what was in the cards for us, but this senior class did some special things this year. Some people looked at me like I was bat crazy when I first got here and talked about going to the playoffs. But I promise that those people back then wouldn’t have expected to see a group fight like this one did tonight and has all year.”
L 8 0 10 6 6 — 30
A 10 14 0 0 3 — 27
A—Jordan Wilson 4 pass from Isaiah Skinner (Brody Ham kick)
A—Ham 40 FG
L—Devon Green 25 pass from Jai’que Hart (Davion Leslie Jr. pass from Hart)
A—Jeff Roberts 2 run (Ham kick)
A—Sikes 2 run (Ham kick)
L—Shawn Rigdon 28 FG
L—Green 14 pass from Hart (Rigdon kick)
L—Leslie Jr. 1 pass from Demarco Brownlee (kick failed)
A—Ham 27 FG
L—Taye Seymore 15 pass from Hart