published Saturday, December 10th, 2011

Hargis: Nightmare turns to dream win for Jackets

ATLANTA -- Not since Linda Blair's head rotated 360 degrees has there been a tougher demon to exorcise.

Top-ranked and four-time defending Georgia Class AA state champion Buford, which had beaten Calhoun for the last three of those titles, refused to give up hope when everyone else at the Georgia Dome had.

But after the Wolves rallied for 14 points in the final 1:12 of regulation to force overtime, it was Calhoun that ultimately found a way to overcome three years of frustration, snap the state's longest win streak and end its own 59-year championship drought.

Hunter Knight's hit on Andre Johnson on the first play of overtime forced a fumble and Calhoun teammate Heath Everett fell on the ball. Without hesitating, Yellow Jackets coach Hal Lamb sent All-America kicker Adam Griffith onto the field and the Alabama commitment drilled the 32-yard field goal to hand Buford its first loss in 28 games.

"I had a really bad feeling when they scored and we had to go into overtime," said Calhoun senior linebacker Gabe Freeman, who continually checked the scoreboard as he spoke to make sure in fact Calhoun did own the 27-24 victory. "I couldn't help but think about the last three years and how it felt to walk out of here with a loss and our hearts broken.

"The first thing I wanted to know last week after we won our semifinal game was if Buford had won. I wanted it to be them that we played, because I wanted the chance to take it away from them. They never stopped fighting the whole game. They weren't going to just let us have it. But that just makes it more memorable, to win like this. I'll never forget this feeling for the rest of my life."

Calhoun had won 53 straight games against opponents not named Buford and had gotten progressively closer to knocking off the Wolves the last three years, losing by three in 2009 and falling in overtime last year. Friday evening Calhoun seemed to have the title in hand when Everett intercepted a Wolves pass with less than two minutes remaining and his team leading by two touchdowns.

But that play was nullified by a late hit on the quarterback, and the situation grew worse when Calhoun was called for a second unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Buford scored on a 24-yard TD pass on the next snap to pull within seven, and after holding the Yellow Jackets on three downs, the Wolves managed to tie the game inexplicably when Calhoun punter Zane Rhodes mishandled the snap and his fumble bounced into the arms of Dillon Lee, who ran it back 38 yards with 39 seconds remaining.

"There was one point where we were about to take the headsets off and our kids were celebrating already," said Yellow Jackets coach Hal Lamb, whose team capped its 11th straight season of at least 10 wins by finishing 15-0. "Then things started happening so fast, it was surreal. When they came back and tied it, all I could think was this is our worst nightmare. I thought we had just given away the state championship.

"Part of having such a veteran team is how quickly they regrouped. I told them before we went out for that first overtime series that if we got an interception or a fumble recovery to just go down with the ball. Get off the field and let's kick a field goal and win this thing."

Buford, loaded with at least six future FBS signess and ranked by several polls among the top 10 nationally, was tied for the state record with its four consecutive championships and had won six of the last nine. The Wolves only win by fewer than 28 points this season was last week's 15-point semifinal win over Carver.

The winning kick was Griffith's fourth field goal of the game and followed the Yellow Jackets' fourth fumble recovery.

"There's no way we should even be on the field with that bunch," Coach Lamb said. "They're so much bigger and more talented. But we've got a lot of heart inside those shoulder pads for our kids. When you lose games the way we have the last three years, all you can do is start fighting again to get back here and just keep fighting once you're here and see what happens."

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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