The Dawson County Tigers overcame three turnovers, two missed field goals, and a series of bobbled snaps to come away with a 45 – 42 victory over the Chestatee War Eagles on Aug. 30.
Prior to the game, volunteer character coach Russell Davis told the team that a “sole-survival mentality and focus” would be the difference in the game and, hindsight being 20-20, he was eerily accurate as the Tigers needed every second and then some to claim victory.
“18-inches, men, 18-inches is what will make the difference in this game, the 18-inches between your head and your heart,” Davis said. “That’s where focus comes from, and focus will be the difference in this game.”
Lady luck was quick to register which her favored team as Chestatee’s Christian Charles saw his first touchdown pass skip through the hands of the intended receiver only to land squarely in the hands of another, who took it to the end-zone for an early War Eagle lead.
The Tigers responded with an opening possession scoring drive that covered the length of the field, capped off by a beautiful 30-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Zach Holtzclaw to senior Riley Herndon, but for most of the first-half the momentum was definitely in Chestatee’s corner as the War Eagles took advantage of a series of Dawson County mistakes to open a two touchdown lead early in the second quarter.
Holtzclaw settled the team and put together another long scoring drive, this one capped off by a 15-yard scamper from senior Shawn Thomas and the Tigers were back within a touchdown until a series of errors in the final minutes of the half allowed Chestatee to score once more before the break.
Head Coach Sid Maxwell circulated through a despondent looking group of players during half-time, taking time to talk with each unit and occasionally individual players, offering words of encouragement, reinforcing the fundamentals of the game, and reminding the team that it would be heart and focus that won the game.
“You’ve got to simplify the system,” Maxwell said. “If you only make one adjustment, then you have got to do it right.”
Dawson County’s adjustments were evident immediately as senior Dakohta Sonnichsen took the ball for a wild 60-yard ride down the sidelines on the first play from scrimmage to cut the lead in half.
The Tiger’s defense began to find the holes in the War Eagles’ line as senior D.J. Mitchell found his way into the backfield on back-to-back plays, recording the first sack of the night and then forcing Charles into an errant pass that Herndon snagged out of the air for Dawson County’s first takeaway.
Herndon stepped up again on a fourth down fake punt with a quick pass to freshman Jaedon Gibson as the Tigers, but a fumble on the next play gave Chestatee another opportunity, and once again, the Tigers faced a two-score deficit.
A huge return from Gibson on the ensuing kick set-up a 24-yard touchdown strike from Holtzclaw to senior Hunter Barron, followed by a pick-six on the next play from sophomore Braedon Hubbard, and suddenly the Tigers had their first lead of the night.
Dawson County led by one point, but they guarded that point jealously with Herndon snatching his second interception of the evening, while senior Jacob Payne took over the front-line grabbing the first of two critical sacks in the game, this one forcing a three and out from Chestatee to start the fourth quarter.
Both defenses buckled down, keeping the ball between the twenties until Chestatee’s third possession of the quarter. Charles engineered a time-killing drive that chewed just over four minutes of clock, and with a mere 1:06 remaining the War Eagles punched it in the endzone to take the lead.
A bizarre two-point play that saw Charles catch his own batted pass and run it into the endzone for the conversion put the Tigers in the position of needing a touchdown and the extra-point to tie the game.
So that is exactly what they did.
Holtzclaw completed a pair of sideline passes to junior Alex Leblanc and then uncorked a long shot to a diving Sonnichsen to put the Tigers on the Chestatee nine-yard line. Rolling right on the next play he found Barron for the score and, after junior Caleb Bonesteel’s extra point the game was tied with fifteen seconds left.
“It’s the kind of stuff you live for,” Holtzclaw said. “Really, you grow up dreaming about these moments.”
Overtime in high school football is played very similar to college overtime, with each team getting a possession from the 15-yard line instead of the 20. The team’s exchange possessions until one outscores the other or if a defense should score.
Chestatee started the overtime and it was apparent to everyone in the stadium that they were resting their fate on Charles as he attempted to push the ball up the middle on three consecutive plays. Led by Payne, the Tigers front line stood strong and on fourth and one, Payne burst through the line for his second sack of the night, knocking Charles back a half dozen yards and forcing a turn-over on downs.
“I just saw it open up and I pushed through as hard as I could,” Payne said.
Three plays later Bonesteel calmly stepped to the field and pounded the 23-yard shot straight through the uprights to secure the victory in what can only be described as an emotional rollercoaster of a game.
“I worked with coach (Brent) Cox at halftime and we fixed a couple of things I was doing wrong,” Bonesteel said. “You just have to have confidence in yourself and continue to believe.”
With the win, the Tigers moved to 2-0 on the season as they ready for another road game, this one with the 0-2 West Hall Spartans on Sep. 13 with kick-off scheduled for 7:30 p.m.