November 3, 2013 12:01:35 AM
CALEDONIA -- "It ain't over till it's over."
That saying was a perfect fit for what happened here Friday night in the regular-season finale between the Caledonia High School football team and the Leake Central Gators.
Leake Central used a potent rushing attack to build a 36-19 lead with 8 minutes, 50 seconds to play in the game. But Caledonia stormed back behind the play of senior quarterback Ben Marchbanks and senior all-purpose player Quavis Betts for a thrilling 40-36 victory to finish off Andy Crotwell's inaugural season as head coach.
"I can't say enough about how hard our guys fought tonight, or all season," said Crotwell, whose team finished 3-8 and 1-4 in Class 4A, Region 4. "We just hung in there, kept throwing punches, kept fighting, kept battling, and something positive finally happened for our kids and our team. I could not be prouder or happier for them."
The victory was Caledonia's first in region play since a 28-10 decision against Kosciusko on Oct. 21, 2011.
The finish seemed like it was a part of a different game from the one that was played in the first three-plus quarters. Leake Central used the running of senior Lavonta Luckett (35 carries, 351 yards, four touchdowns) to gash Caledonia for chunks of yards. But Luckett's night wouldn't be enough, though, as the Confederates made just enough big plays and the Gators made just enough mistakes. They lost two of seven fumbles and committed nine penalties to give the Confederates a chance to make a late charge. That charge came after Leake Central marched 10 plays for 50 yards following a free kick and took the 17-point lead on a 5-yard touchdown run by senior quarterback Jamal Collins.
On the ensuing drive, Caledonia moved 66 yards in 10 plays, aided by two penalties, to cut the margin to 36-26 with 5:33 left. Marchbanks was involved in every play and scored from 3 yards out.
Leake Central recovered the onsides kick and had a chance to run out the clock, but two plays later Caledonia forced a turnover and recovered the fumble at the Gators' 46-yard line with 4:41 left. Marchbanks and the offense needed only two plays to score. The big play was a 34-yard strike from Marchbanks to junior slot receiver Ian Hartman on first down. Marchbanks then found Betts, who scored touchdowns at receiver and at running back, in the corner of the end zone to cut the margin to 36-33 with 4:10 to go.
Caledonia was unsuccessful again on the onsides kick, but it had new life and momentum on its side.
"The ability to score quickly after the fumble was huge," Crotwell said. "We decided to go onside kick there because they had had so much success running the ball. When we didn't get it, our defense came up with a huge stop and we were able to use our timeouts to give ourselves a chance."
On the ensuing punt, Caledonia used what Crotwell described as its "hybrid blockwall return team." Senior Onterrio Lowery burst through a gap in the punt team and blocked the punt to give the Confederates one last chance at the Gators' 40 with 2:25 left and no timeouts.
"Coach (Brian) White had our hybrid blockwall return team on and Onterrio crossed face on a blocker to block it," Crotwell said. "It was an incredibly huge play because it drastically reduced the field for the game winning drive."
Caledonia moved the necessary 40 yards in eight plays, converting a fourth-and-1 along the way. Marchbanks again was involved in every play. This time, the big play was a 26-yard strike to Betts on a slip screen to the Gators' 8. After a couple of incompletions in the end zone, Marchbanks hit Betts again in the corner for the game-winner with 12.9 seconds left.
"Those two guys (Betts and Marchbanks) have been a progression all season," Crotwell said. "Ben has steadily gotten better and threw some really good balls at crucial times tonight, and Quavis made several huge plays when we had to have it."
When asked how the victory would impact the program, Crotwell said, "I am just so happy for our kids. We needed this tonight after fighting so hard all year. Hopefully we can build on this in the offseason and entice some kids in our school that could help us to join the team and help us take the next step. The foundation is there. We have our entire offensive line returning intact. We have several key guys on defense back. A win like this will hopefully send us into a very positive, productive offseason program and we will continue to improve."