Wildcats advance into uncharted territory: The Final Four

Published 6:14 pm Saturday, November 26, 2022

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ELLAVILLE – It has been said that in football, as well as in other sports, defense wins championships. If the 2022 Schley County High School Football Team (SCHS) is fortunate enough to go all the way and win a state championship on the field at Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta two weeks from now, that statement will most assuredly apply to this group of Wildcats. On a foggy Black Friday night on November 25 at Wildcat Stadium, the SCHS defense forced two interceptions, including a pick six (interception run back for touchdowns), a scoop and score and another fumble recovery. As a result, the SCHS offense was able to take advantage by scoring on almost every possession, which would eventually earn SCHS an historic 55-23 victory over the Wilcox County Patriots (WCHS) in the quarterfinals of the GHSA Class A Division 2 State Playoffs and vault the Wildcats’ football program into uncharted territory: the state semifinals.

The Wildcats (11-2) are now two more victories away from the school’s first ever state championship in football, while WCHS finishes its season with a record of 9-4.

“I just want to give glory to God and thank God for all that He’s done for us right now,” SCHS Head Coach Darren Alford said. “It’s just been awesome to see what He’s doing with these kids and the things that the coaches are doing, the work that is put in. You know, getting to this place, I’m overwhelmed right now just to be honest with you with what we’ve done. It has never been done here before. The best thing I can say is I’m just thankful for all that is going on right now with what we’re doing.”

Schley County junior JaLewis Solomon (#2) tries to tackle Wilcox County wide receiver B.J. Gibson. Solomon intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown in the Wildcats’ victory.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

While the defense did its job, as it has done all year, the SCHS offense cannot be ignored for its outstanding performance in the contest. Senior running back Malachi Banks rushed for 157 yards on 20 carries and scored three touchdowns to lead the Wildcats’ attack. Sophomore running back Zayden Walker rushed for 53 yards on six carries and scored a touchdown on a scoop and score and Junior quarterback Jay Kanazawa completed nine of 20 passes for 134 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. In addition to his scoop and score, Walker also caught one 15-yard pass for a touchdown in the Wildcats’ win. Senior wide receiver Clinton Jackson also caught a 44-yard pass for a touchdown and junior wide receiver JaLewis Solomon caught three passes for 24 yards. Junior wide receiver Carson Westbrook also had a productive game for the Wildcats as he caught three passes for 43 yards.

Schley County sophomore running back Zayden Walker scored a touchdown when he recovered a fumble and ran it back the other way for six. Walker also caught a touchdown pass in the Wildcats’ win over Wilcox County.
Photo by Abby Cheek

However, the SCHS offense would not have had the explosive output it did without the dominating performance of the defense. Solomon had a pick six for a touchdown and Walker recovered a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown (scoop and score). Junior middle linebacker Jack Clark also had an interception. Walker and junior free safety Kabreon Aldridge forced and recovered two fumbles on the night and senior outside linebacker Luke Forehand also forced a fumble.

In addition to the individual efforts on defense, the SCHS defense as a hole forced three turnovers on downs and almost forced a fourth one late in the game.

The Patriots won the toss and elected to defer until the second half. However, WCHS successfully executed an onside kick near midfield and ended up getting the ball first on offense.

Schley County junior quarterback Jay Kanazawa completed nine of 20 passes for 134 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception in the Wildcats’ 55-23 win over Wilcox County in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs.
Photo by Abby Cheek

However, as they have done all year, the SCHS defense came up with a huge play as JaLewis Solomon intercepted WCHS quarterback Abe Stowe’s pass and took it 66 yards the other way for a pick six. The extra point by Miguel Yanez-Rueda was good and the Wildcats had an early 7-0 lead.

That interception by Solomon was the Wildcats’ 22nd interception this season, while according to maxpreps.com, the average number of interceptions for any high school football program in America is seven.

Later on in the first quarter, the Wildcats had the ball inside their own five-yard line, but Kanazawa mishandled the snap from center and had to fall on the ball in the end zone, giving the Patriots a safety. Then on its next possession, WCHS took the lead when running back Dayshawn Lawson broke free and scampered 56 yards for a touchdown. The PAT try by Stowe was no good, but SCHS trailed 9-7.

However, the SCHS offense responded with another scoring drive and capped it off with a short pass from Kanazawa to Walker in the flat. Walker then scampered 15 yards for another Wildcats touchdown. SCHS tried to go for two and failed, but they had regained the lead at 13-9 with 3:11 to go in the first quarter.

Schley County junior fullback Sam Forehand runs the ball for the Wildcats. Forehand caught one pass for eight yards in the Wildcats’ win.
Photo by Abby Cheek

Once again, the SCHS defense did its job and the Patriots were forced to punt to the Wildcat offense. The Wildcats then responded with another scoring drive, as Kanazawa was able to find Jackson for a 44-yard touchdown pass. The extra point by Yanez-Rueda was good and SCHS had a 20-9 lead with 2:12 left in the first quarter.

The Wildcat defense rose to the occasion once again on the Patriots’ next possession. WCHS was able to mount a drive into SCHS territory, but the Wildcats forced the Patriots into a fourth down situation. On fourth down, Stowe tried to find Tennessee commit B.J. Gibson in the end zone for a touchdown, but the pass was knocked away by Jackson and the ball went over to SCHS on downs.

Not long thereafter, the SCHS defense would make another huge play when Walker recovered a fumble and took it 37 yards the other way for a touchdown. The extra point by Yanez-Rueda was good and SCHS had a commanding 27-9 lead with 5:14 left before halftime.

However, the Patriots would force a turnover of their own when Kanazawa’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Stowe, who is also a defensive back for WCHS. However, the defense once again forced a fourth and one situation for the Patriots at the SCHS 18. On fourth and one, Stowe tried to run for the yardage but was stopped short of the line to gain. This was the second time in this game that the SCHS defense had stopped the Patriots on fourth down and it gave the offense extra momentum to mount another scoring drive just before halftime.

Schley County senior outside linebacker Luke Forehand tries to force his way into the Patriots’ backfield.
Photo by Abby Cheek

The Wildcats had the ball near midfield, but a false start penalty, two incomplete passes and a sack of Kanazawa for a six-yard loss forced SCHS to punt the ball away to the Patriots with 9.4 seconds left before the half. Instead of risking another turnover in their own territory, WCHS decided to take a knee and the Wildcats went into halftime with a 27-9 lead.

The Patriots got the ball to start the second half, but once again, the SCHS defense stifled WCHS on offense near midfield and the Patriots were forced to punt.

On the Wildcats’ first possession of the second half, they faced a third and five situation from their own 16-yard line, but Kanazawa’s pass was complete to Carson Westbrook for a first down and the Wildcats got even more yards on a personal foul penalty against WCHS. A couple of plays later, Kanazawa found Westbrook over the middle for a 30-yard gain. The Wildcats continued to move the ball inside the WCHS 20-yard line and were aided by an offside penalty against the Patriots. Shortly thereafter, Banks ran the ball in for a touchdown from 10 yards out. Yanez-Rueda’s extra point was good and SCHS led 34-9 with 4:25 to go in the third quarter amidst a thick fog at Wildcat Stadium.

On the Patriots’ next possession, the Wildcats nearly came up with a huge sack for a loss on Stowe, but he escaped and through a long pass to Willie Butts, who ran the ball down inside the SCHS 10-yard line. A couple of plays later, Stowe scored on a quarterback keeper. The extra point by Stowe was good and the Patriots had cut the SCHS lead to 34-16 with 2:45 left in the third quarter.

However, that did not stop the SCHS offense on its next possession. The Wildcats were able to move the ball into WCHS territory down to the WCHS 34-yard line. Then on third and five from the WCHS 29, the Wildcats gained first down yardage when Kanazawa found Westbrook over the middle for a completion inside the WCHS 25 to end the third quarter. Once the fourth quarter started, Banks would eventually cap the drive off with another rushing touchdown. The PAT by Yanez-Rueda was good and SCHS had a 41-16 with 11:24 left in the game.

Schley County junior defensive tackle Trenton Stubbs (#40) tries to get to the quarterback.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

However, the Patriots would not go quietly. Thanks to a long run from scrimmage by Dayshawn Lawson down to the SCHS 13-yard line, WCHS would eventually put points on the board. They were able to move the ball down inside the SCHS four-yard line, but shortly thereafter, JaLewis Solomon would tackle Lawson for a huge loss back near the SCHS 13. However, a couple of plays later on fourth and goal from the SCHS nine, Stowe found Willie Butts in the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown pass. The extra point by Stowe was good and the Wildcats’ lead had been trimmed to 41-23.

However, SCHS would respond with the final nail in the coffin of the Patriots. On second down and eight from the WCHS 41-yard line, Walker broke free and ran the ball 41 yards for a touchdown. Yanez-Rueda’s extra point was good and the Wildcats had a 48-23 lead with a little over four minutes left.

The SCHS defense was still not done either. On the Patriots’ next possession, Jack Clark came up with the Wildcats’ second interception of the night and their 23rd of the season. This put the offense in prime position to add to the lead and they did just that when Banks scored his third rushing touchdown of the game from 16 yards out. Yanez-Rueda’s extra point was good and the Wildcats would go on to salt away their 55-23 victory.

The Wildcats will travel to Wrightsville, GA next Friday night, December 2 to take on Johnson County (JCH) in the state semifinals. JCH (13-0) defeated Clinch County 36-21 in its state quarterfinal game on Friday. Due to a coin flip done by the GHSA back on Tuesday, November 22, the JCH Trojans ended up getting to host the semifinal contest. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.