Wildcats fall to Covington, remain one win away from making playoffs
Fayette-Ware football’s team recently went to see the faith-based movie Woodlawn, the true story of a Birmingham high school team in the 1970s. The movie is about how a coach and star running back brought healing to a community through purpose, teamwork and faith.
“It brought us closer,” said Fayette-Ware running back Steafon McNeal.
The team was invited to a special screening two months ago. Only the University of Alabama football team had seen it before the Wildcats.
“We had 18 players accept Christ following the movie. We modeled our theme “One Way” after the movie’s influence,” said Fayette-Ware head football coach Randy Griffith.
Fayette-Ware junior running back Sammie Mitchell agreed with McNeal.
“The movie Woodlawn helped us become closer and made our bond between each other stronger and better than it ever was,” Mitchell said. “It made us care about one another. It showed us that if you focus on and off the field and play as a team, you can do anything you want when it comes to game day. It also changed our mindset from just playing football to play it with meaning and heart because it’s only ‘One Way.’”
Finding a way to end a 66-game losing streak last season, the Wildcats have turned non-believers into believers, thoughts of would you believe into can you believe it.
With a 4-4 overall record and 2-3 in Region 8-3A, the Wildcats are one win away from making the TSSAA playoffs for the first time since 2007. A victory over Raleigh-Egypt in a homecoming game on Oct. 30 would secure fourth place. The Wildcats play at undefeated Northpoint Christian (9-0) at 7 p.m. this Friday.
“It is almost indescribable, the school climate. The kids are proud to be on the team. We have gotten unbelievable support from the study body, the administration. The kids are believing in themselves and the community believes in them and this is why we are going to continue to take steps forward and continue to be successful,” said Griffith, in his second season. “We are expecting to win at Northpoint and expecting to win against Raleigh-Egypt and take this team into the playoffs. We believe in ourselves and finally other people believe in us, too.”
Despite a 36-13 region home loss to Covington played on Thursday because of fall break, there were some can you believe moments.
Fayette-Ware captain Andrew Cole, a defensive tackle, recovered a fumble and ran 32 yards scoring with 7:33 left in the first quarter. Quarterback Gregory Goforth kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
“It’s not very often you get a defensive tackle to score a touchdown but that is the first he has ever scored in his life,” said Griffith.
Before the game, Covington head coach Marty Wheeler called the Wildcats a “dangerous team. They are a lot more dangerous than people realize. They have got athletes here and their coaches have got them to buy into it (their program). With that much athleticism, it has put confidence in them. It is always a concern. They are getting better and better each week.”
With three shutouts, the Wildcats have wins over Sheffield 22-0, Memphis Catholic 41-0, Byhalia 49-0 and Hamilton 34-26.
“Coaching,” said Goforth, a senior, of the turnaround. “It feels great. Before this year, I won one game in 30. And now that we have four more wins and we have two games left and we can go to the playoffs my senior year that feels amazing. We have got to beat Raleigh-Egypt, work hard at practice and perform on Friday.”
Changing the defensive scheme to a 4-2-5. the scheme has fit “our type of athletes better” said Griffith. “We are able to execute on defense better because of the scheme.”
The Wildcats’ defense found it hard to stop Covington running back T.J. Smith, who rushed for 206 yards and scored four touchdowns. A junior, Smith entered the game with 1,328 yards and 14 touchdowns. T.J. Boyd, a senior, had entered with 650 yards rushing. Boyd also scored a touchdown on Thursday.
“T.J. was our tailback last year and being a sophomore, played like a sophomore. A lot of the runs he made tonight, (with) the cuts and vision, he didn’t have a year ago. He has had a big year for us. He has gone over 150 yards in each game except for one,” said Wheeler, in his seventh season as head coach.
His rushing yardage is “just natural” said Smith.
“It comes with it. Our offensive line helped me a lot,” he said. “They helped me push the ball down field.”
Wheeler said that fullbacks Boyd and Ish Jones provide comfort.
“Both of those guys, we feel real comfortable with. Boyd runs the ball hard. Our running backs take pride in running the ball hard and that is our philosophy here. We are a team that runs the football. If you don’t want to run it hard, you are not going to be out there.”
The Chargers (6-2, 5-0) ran their way to their third region championship in the last three seasons and with a victory over Sheffield on Oct. 30 will secure an undefeated region record.
“Not everybody believed in us. We have to show everybody that we are the region champs. It feels great,” said Smith. “Good things happen.”
Covington has turned around from a 3-7 record in 2014.
“Winning the region championship is always special. It is a goal of ours every year to be undefeated region champions. Being region champions now, especially with the guys who stayed from last year who didn’t leave, who didn’t give up faith, who worked really hard in the off-season; that is what hard work does for you. It pays off,” said Wheeler.
“I am proud of our kids. We are so young and inexperienced in so many areas (10 of 11 offensive starters are underclassmen). We did have 28 guys who came back from last year’s team who are juniors and seniors now. We experienced a very disappointing season last year. We were close in several games and didn’t get it done.”
Against the Wildcats, the Chargers pitched their third straight second-half shutout.
“That is something I think a lot of, being a defensive guy,” said Wheeler. “One thing I can say about our team this year, we have definitely been a second-half team.”
Covington led 22-13 at halftime. With Cole giving the Wildcats their quick lead, Covington matched it on its next possession. Smith ran 47 yards before scoring on a 7-yard touchdown. When Andrew Owens kicked the PAT, the game was tied with 5:05 left in the first quarter.
When Boyd scored a 21-yard touchdown after Smith’s 32-yard run, the Chargers took a 13-7 lead. Owens kicked it to 14-7 with 1:49 left in the first.
The Chargers took a 22-7 lead when freshman quarterback Brock Lomax led a 62-yard drive. Lomax threw a 16-yard pass to Boyd to get to the Wildcat 20-yard line. Smith had six runs that got the Chargers to the 1-yard line. One fourth and one, Smith scored his second touchdown and it was 20-7. Rob Hendren ran a two-point conversion with 3:39 left in the second quarter.
The Wildcats scored on a 64-yard drive. McNeal returned the Chargers’ kick to the 36-yard line. Chris Kee ran to the 50 and through a 15-yard penalty, the Wildcats got to the Chargers’ 35. McNeal ran 17 yards for a first down to the 18.
On fourth and 10 after three straight incomplete passes by Goforth, the Wildcats got a break when the Chargers were penalized for pass interference.
On fourth and two, Kee scored a touchdown with 54.2 seconds left in the half. A two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.
On the opening possession of the second half, the Chargers scored when Smith ran for a 35-yard touchdown. Owens made it 29-13.
The Wildcats then got to the Charger 37-yard line on their next possession. Goforth threw a first-down pass to Tyiee Watkins to get to the 43. A holding penalty that the Wildcats overcame led to a first down at the Covington 46 before the drive stalled when the Wildcats could not convert a fourth down and two.
The Chargers scored on their first possession of the fourth quarter when Smith ran 27 yards with 10:34 left. Owens’ PAT extended the lead to 36-13.
McNeal intercepted a Lomax pass at the Wildcat 11-yard line with 7:27 left.
“After we got our first touchdown on defense, they came back and scored and scored and scored and we didn’t put up any more points. They just ran off and that was the turning point,” said Goforth.
Goforth completed 6 of 17 passes for 41 yards. Watkins led Wildcat receivers with two receptions for 31 yards.
McNeal led rushers with 38 yards on seven carries, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
McNeal had 57 yards in kick returns while Kee had 25.
Kartavious Terry led the Wildcats in tackles with eight; Watkins had six. Goforth averaged 33 yards on five punts, including one inside the Chargers’ 20-yard line.
Top stops were recorded by the Wildcats’ Watkins, Trevin Mays, Cole.
Covington’s defense, which has four seniors and seven underclassmen, held the Wildcats to 39 yards rushing.
Fayette-Ware was playing without Mitchell, its top rusher. He was wearing a sling after dislocating his right shoulder when he dived for a ball in practice on Wednesday.
“I dived wrong and hit my shoulder and bruised my bone,” said Mitchell. “I am trying to come back as quick as I can. I can’t stay out much longer, my team needs me.”
Said Goforth, “We weren’t healthy. One of our best running backs was out. Our fullback (Will Thompson) wasn’t healthy. If you aren’t healthy you lose a lot of stuff on offense.”
Griffith said, “Not having Sammie Mitchell tonight really hurt our game plan and our schemes. If we can get him back and he gets healthy, we will be able to compete at a really high level. We are not trying to be fancy, we are trying to continue to do the things that we do well and with our Wing-T offense, we are putting up points. We are going to continue to focus on keeping the offense moving and getting healthy.”
Griffith was pleased with the play of McNeal. “We leaned on Steafon heavily tonight. With the loss of Sammie, he probably got double the carries.”
Griffith knew what he was facing in Covington.
“Covington is the kind of team that it doesn’t matter what they are going to do, they just put hat-on-hat and dare you stop them. We weren’t able to do that. We knew that Smith was going to get the ball. We knew that he was a hard runner. We knew that they would be lead block for him. We thought we would have a game plan to stop him but we couldn’t. He is an exceptional young man.”
The Chargers were able to take advantage of short-field position.
“We talk about this every week. We talk about it before the game especially. Field position is huge. We want to win the battle of field position and in the games we have won this year, I think we have dominated field position,” said Wheeler.
“Any time you can give your team a short field on offense and the type offense we run, it opens up the entire playbook. We can take some chances throwing the football if we want to on the plus-side and pick the times we want to throw it and not when we have to throw it. That is huge for the type offense we run.”
A freshman quarterback, Lomax completed 3 of 4 passes for 60 yards and one interception.
“He made some good throws and made one poor decision,” said Wheeler. “I think that will come with experience not to force a throw if it is not there and throw it out of bounds. When you think about a freshman quarterback, he is supposed to play on Thursday nights but that is a ninth grade game not a varsity game.
“I am tickled to death with the way he has played and our kids believe in him and him being a freshman says a lot about his character and what kind of player he is becoming and going to be in the future. He has started from day one. He has gotten better every week. He is comfortable. We are eight games in, he should be comfortable. The future for him is really bright. He has a chance to be an outstanding football player and he understands what is we look for in a quarterback.”
The game was filled with penalties.
“That definitely was a distraction to us,” said Griffith. “We weren’t used to what we felt like was trash-talking and the holding. We appealed to the referees several times but we didn’t get a big response. I know they were equally frustrated for having a coach ejected for arguing with the referee. We were both equally frustrated with the officiating tonight.”
Wheeler said, “I would say that the penalties, some of them I do believe were penalties. I think the majority of penalties, not just tonight, but this season, are because of all the regulations they are asking the officials to look for that don’t even affect the play during the game.
“They don’t actually see them they way it should be. The way they interpret the helmet-to-helmet contact rule, that is always a judgment call for an official. I have seen licks this year I thought were definitely a helmet-to-helmet penalty but I have seen hits this year that were clean, within the rules, what I call physical football plays and they get called. It is frustrating as a coach because those are 15-yard penalties and they can affect the outcome. I know that it is a tough job but I think we can do a better job.”
The Wildcats have done a better job this season of staying in the game. “We played together. We didn’t quit. In the past we probably would have given up early. We kept our heads in the game. We didn’t get off-focus even though we did a couple get a couple of bad calls, we played together,” said McNeal.
With it being Senior Night for fall sports, Gregory wanted to get a win. “It was upsetting we couldn’t pull out the victory,” he said.
Mitchell has another season. The turnaround has “meant a lot,” he said. “When I came up here it wasn’t looking so good and I wanted to change that. Last year we kept improving and improving. Last year we won one game and this year we are winning. We going to come out strong.”
Said Griffith, “It is really a good time to be part of Wildcat football and the kids have never had it.”
About Graham Sweeney
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