On a clear and crisp autumn night in Dahlonega, two bitter rivals faced off with one very important achievement on the line — the Region 7-3A championship.
Thousands poured into the stands at The Burial Grounds to watch two hungry teams put everything on the line.
In the most consequential matchup between the Dawson County and Lumpkin County football teams in over two decades, the Tigers prevailed 38-10 over the hosting Indians to earn the region title and finish the regular season with an 8-2 record.
For head coach Sid Maxwell, the win was a culmination of months of hard work by the entire team and coaching staff to put together the region’s best squad.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my guys. It’s nice to be able to come through and have this victory,” Maxwell said. “Things [like this] happen not because you did [the work] this week but because you did it in January.
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Anticipation swirled before the game as both teams entered with a chance for success on two levels — to be crowned region champions and to secure bragging rights in a heated rivalry with renewed meaning.
While Lumpkin was vying for its first region title in program history, Dawson was looking to return to that mountaintop for the first time since 2015.
Never had this longtime local rivalry had so much at stake. And the packed house full of fans, parents and alumni alike created an atmosphere that more than confirmed that fact.
With raucous crowds brimming with excitement on both ends, the turning point of the game came with the game deadlocked at 10 points apiece in the third quarter.
Earlier in the game, the Indians scored first on a field goal before Dawson got on the board through a 57-yard touchdown pass from Davis Glass to Hunter Casserleigh. A Tigers field goal later on put them up 10-3 at halftime.
With the exception of a long Lumpkin pass that set up their field goal, Dawson’s defensive line had stifled the typically fluid Indians offense led by Cooper Rush and Mason Sullens.
Seniors Cade Adams and Kevin Haymond, Colton Schuette, Will Kurtz and Ian Costley led a defense that shut out Lumpkin in the second half.
But Lumpkin would tie the game early in the third quarter on a pick-six and then had possession again following a Dawson punt.
A Tigers response came quickly, with towering Dawson linebacker Kade Moledor leaping into the air and returning an interception over 30 yards for a touchdown.
As he huffed and puffed down the field, the well-traveled visiting student section rose to its feet and roared to its loudest all night.
In a matter of just seconds on the game clock, the Tigers were back on the board again. On the ensuing Lumpkin possession, defensive back Christian Webb came up with an interception and returned it well into Indians territory.
Just a couple of plays later, Kenny Nelson scored a 20-yard touchdown run to put Dawson up by two scores with four minutes left in the third quarter.
After the teams traded possessions, the Tigers had the ball again early in the fourth quarter and began to use up the remaining time in the game.
The majority of that possession became Elijah Smith show — with his quick bursts and elusiveness proving too much for the Lumpkin defense.
In addition to his own talents, Smith was aided by another strong performance by the offensive line. Haymond and Adams were joined by Simeon Welch, Briggs Weaver and Anthony Garcia.
Smith eventually ran in a decisive touchdown with just over six minutes remaining.
With the visiting crowd growing ever more excited for the final buzzer to sound, Dawson gave the supporters one final treat before Halloween.
A pick-six by Tucker Caine put an additional stamp on what had already become a sealed victory for the Tigers.
When the clock finally hit zero, the players celebrated with each other and then quickly acknowledged the student section and everyone who traveled to watch the title-clinching performance.
Sounds of jubilation echoed around the huddled Dawson players and coaching staff as the night grew ever colder.
“It’s always good to finish strong,” Maxwell said. “We won every region game and it’s fantastic to do that. Tonight, we finished the job.”
Next, the Tigers will host the fourth seed of Region 8, with all teams in that region still having to play an additional regular season game next week.
As of now, four teams in that region are tied with 2-2 region records.