The Valdosta Daily Times
Perfect. That is what the Valwood Valiants were this season. The Valiants were perfect.
Valwood closed out its first-ever undefeated season, finishing with an unscathed 14-0 record, with a 48-13 rout of the Westwood Wildcats in the GISA Class AA State Championship Game at Goddard Field Friday night.
The state championship was Valwood’s fourth all-time, and first since 1999.
“It is awesome man,” Valwood head coach Ashley Henderson said, just minutes after hoisting the championship trophy. “They have been through the 6 a.m. workouts and everything they have done — camp, making them spend the night, which was kind of foreign to them — everything they have done, it goes to show that coaches are not as crazy as we look. There is a method behind a madness.”
Valwood racked up 446 yards of offense and scored on six of its nine offensive possessions and added a defensive touchdown at the end of the first half to cruise to the state championship victory.
With former head coach Brannon Tidwell watching from the sidelines, senior Khary Paige racked up 179 yards rushing and two touchdowns on just 11 carries, while quarterback Jake Lastinger completed 4 of 6 passes for 94 yards with two first-half touchdown passes to junior Char Merine.
“I’m truly blessed. I thank God for my team, my coaches, my friends,” Paige said. “Without them, we would not be here.”
While Paige and Merine combined to score four of Valwood’s touchdowns on the night, the Valiants also received rushing touchdowns from senior Dashon Day and junior Marik Merine. Valwood’s lone defensive touchdown came on a fumble recovery by senior Gerrick Williams late in the second quarter.
The game did not start the way Valwood planned. Westwood returned the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, but a block in the back penalty nullified the play and the Wildcats took over possession of the ball at their own 43-yard line. It didn’t matter, though. Four plays later, Westwood used a 23-yard rushing touchdown by quarterback Mitch Good to grab an early 6-0 lead.
After the two teams swapped punts, Valwood scored on its next three offensive possessions to take a 21-6 lead.
Lastinger opened Valwood’s scoring just five seconds into the second quarter when he found Char Merine on a 17-yard touchdown pass. The Valiants missed the extra point and the score was tied at 6-6.
“We’ve been down before, we knew what to do,” Henderson said.
The scoring play followed up a 47-yard touchdown run by Paige, which was called back due to a block in the back penalty. Lastinger connected with Merine two plays later.
After a Westwood three-and-out, Valwood needed just two plays to find the end zone and take its first and final lead of the night.
Senior Rashad Mathis opened the drive with a 46-yard run off a reverse down the visitor’s sideline, setting up an 11-yard touchdown run by Paige.
Marik Merine ran in the two-point conversion to give Valwood a 14-6 lead.
The Valiants continued to pile it on later in the quarter when Lastinger and Merine connected on a 39-yard scoring play, capping off a six-play, 80-yard drive for the Valiants.
Then, with Valwood leading 21-6 and the seconds running off the clock in the second quarter, Westwood lined up to punt on fourth down.
The snap sailed over the head of the Wildcat punter, landing on the 2-yard line. The Westwood punter picked up the ball and attempted to get off a final punt, but fumbled the ball. Williams jumped onto the loose football in the end zone, giving Valwood took a 28-6 lead at the half.
“(Williams’ fumble recovery), that was the difference,” Henderson said.
Valwood quickly added to its lead, scoring on its fourth play of the third quarter, when Day broke loose up the middle for a 25-yard touchdown run.
“We told them (at halftime) that we wanted to crank it up,” Henderson said, “that we wanted to pour it on, send a statement. I think we did that. But to (Westwood’s) credit, they never quit. They played hard the entire game. Westwood gave us everything we wanted for four quarters.”
The Wildcats’ will to never quit was evident on its following drive, scoring on a 64-yard run by running back Dylon Smith to cut Valwood’s lead to 35-13.
With momentum slipping back towards Westwood, the Valiants responded, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to ice the game.
Less than a minute into the final quarter of the season, Paige broke loose for a 33-yard touchdown run to give the Valiants a 42-13 lead.
Following a turnover on downs for Westwood, Marik Merine ran up the middle on a 44-yard scoring run, giving Valwood a 48-13 advantage.
The Valiants closed out their state championship victory by allowing 11 seniors to take the field for the final kneel down. As freshmen in 2009, this year’s Valwood senior class finished with a 1-9 record.
“It means the most to them, because I came here last year,” Paige said. “So, I give all the credit to them.”