Taking the field in the late afternoon on Thursday, Aug. 30, the 9th grade version of the Dawson County Tigers played the only football game of the week leading up to Labor Day. Featuring an offense that put up 48 points in two consecutive victories to open their season, the young Tigers squared off against the Panthers of Union County in what turned out to be one of the most exciting match-ups of the year.
Opening the game with a kick-off to the Panthers, the Tigers defense took to the field to find themselves faced with a couple of larger, faster kids lined up on the other side of the ball.
“Our team is composed entirely of ninth graders,” Head Coach Kevin Grigsby said. “Some of the other teams in this league will have both ninth and 10th graders.”
Led by defensive lineman Logan Barry, the Tigers successfully defended the middle against the Panthers’ running game to force third down but got caught flat footed on a wide receiver screen giving up the first touchdown of the game on a drive that took less than a minute off the clock.
Tiger Zac Holtzclaw led the offense on to the field after a great kick return by Jackson Grindle brought the ball out to the 40 yard line, but he quickly led them off the field again as the Panthers defense forced a three and out.
With a long strike down the visiting sidelines, the Panthers quickly capitalized on the change of possession and scored their second touchdown of the night, but the Tigers rallied to block the extra point bringing the score to 13–0 as the first quarter closed.
The second appearance of the offense showed signs of improvement as Coach Grigsby and his staff adjusted to the Union County defensive scheme but still came off the field with no points on the drive. The Tigers defense fared better in their outing by holding the Panthers offense to a field goal.
The third appearance of the Tigers offense showed promise as a they began to gain yardage with the ground game. Unfortunately, a fumble derailed the drive at mid-field and gave the Panthers the chance to add their lead, which they did almost immediately on a long touchdown strike to the back corner of the end-zone. With the 2-point conversion Union County put themselves comfortably in the lead with 2 minutes and 9 seconds remaining in the half.
Facing a 24-point deficit, Holtzclaw led the offense onto the field for the final time in the first half. Stitching together a series of inside runs and outside passes the Tigers put together an effective and efficient 2-minute drive and moved the ball the length of the field in just over a minute, and with 51 seconds remaining in the half, Holtzclaw broke around the outside for a 14-yard run to put the Tigers on the board. Adding 2 points on a brilliantly executed fake PAT the score moved to 24–8 in favor of Union County as the first half finally came to a close.
“They have a couple of playmakers over there on offense, that’s for sure,” Grigsby said, assessing the team’s performance at half-time. “At the moment we’re just not executing as well as we need to be.”
Opening the second half with possession of the football, the Tigers continued to build on their late half success by moving the ball on the ground using a combination of Holtzclaw and Grindle to get the ball down to the Panther’s 20 yard line.
After a bad snap, and a great backfield rush by the Panthers, it appeared that the drive would stall until Holtzclaw dropped a beautiful rainbow pass into the arms of Braedon Hubbard to bring the Tigers (after another 2-point conversion) to within 8 points of the Panthers.
Knowing they needed a stop the Tigers’ defense brought immense pressure on the Panther quarterback forcing back-to-back negative plays. Once again, in a third down situation, the Tigers’ defense found themselves on their heels as a deep strike brought the Panthers’ into scoring position and the next play took them into the end-zone for another touchdown. Adding the extra-point made the score 31–16 with just over a quarter remaining in the game.
After another great kick return from Grindle and the Tigers set up shop at mid-field for a critical late game drive. Pushing down the field, this time on the strength of Holtzclaw’s arm, the kids from Dawson County proved determined not to go down without a fight and moved the ball downfield to the Panther’s 25 yard line as the whistle blew to end the quarter
On the opening play of the fourth, Holtzclaw once again lobbed a pass behind the Union County secondary as he completed his second touchdown pass of the night. The Panthers defense plugged the line to stop the 2-point conversion and the Tigers faced a 9-point deficit with time running down.
Failing to recover the ensuing on-side kick put Union County in great field position and, once again, they muscled their way down the field despite the best efforts of the Tiger’s defensive squad. With 2 minutes and 9 seconds remaining in the game the Union County Panthers put the ball into the end zone for the fifth time on the night, and with the extra point, extended their lead to 38 over 22 for Dawson County.
Gathering his team together on the sideline before what he assumed would be the final possession of the game, Coach Grigsby quietly spoke to his team. After bowing their heads and putting their hands together the ninth grade Tigers took possession of the ball and promptly drove down the field in less than a minute with a long pass form Holtzclaw to Braedon, and on the next play Holtzclaw pounded his way into the end-zone for his second rushing touchdown of the night bringing the Tigers to within one score of the Panthers.
This time the on-side kick went exactly as planned and 51 seconds left in the game the Tigers had one last chance. Unfortunately, as time wound down, and the Panthers’ defense remained stout the Dawson County ninth grade Tigers fell just short of the goal line and gave up their first loss of the season by a final score of 37–29.
“Union County was a good test tonight,” Grigsby said. “And we will continue to be tested with teams like Flowery Branch and Rabun later this season.”
The team will host Flowery Branch on Sept. 6.