CALEDONIA — The Caledonia High School football team proved a little August heat wasn”t going to cramp their style Friday night.
Caledonia battled through heat cramps and fatigue to earn a 29-20 win against Nettleton in the season opener.
The victory avenged a 28-7 setback to the Tigers last year.
“The mentality of this team versus last year”s team is completely different,” Caledonia second-year coach Richard Kendrick said. “There were times tonight they could have folded up and called it quits. It was hot and they were tired. But there was no quit in them. They were determined.”
Even with starting sophomore tailback Onterrio Lowery laid up on the sidelines with cramps in his calves, sometimes both at the same time, the Confederates found ways to maintain possession, to move the football, and to eat up precious time off the clock, especially late in the game when Lowery couldn”t play.
“(Onterrio) was a starter for us last year,” Kendrick said. “Our starting tailback went out in the Hamilton game and he got his chance. We knew he was going to be carrying that load for us again this year.”
But with Lowery missing much of the summer workouts while on a mission trip, fatigue and muscle cramps derailed his late-game efforts, forcing someone else to fill his shoes.
In stepped freshman Gary Walden.
Trailing 14-10 with just under six minutes remaining in the third period, Walden”s number was called.
“I didn”t think they were going to call on me,” Walden said. “We have a backup running back and I thought they would put him in, so it was a surprise when they called me. I couldn”t believe it.”
A freshman mistake ensued on his initial touch, as Walden ran into his blocking assignment in the back and was brought down after a 1-yard effort. It was the last mistake he made. Following three consecutive runs totaling nine yards by sophomore quarterback Ben Marchbanks that gave Caledonia a first down at the Nettleton 20-yard line, Walden”s next touch was pure perfection. A missed tackle in the backfield enabled Walden to cut to the inside. Twenty yards later he was in the end zone for his first varsity touchdown that gave the Confederates a 17-14 lead, a lead they would not relinquish.
“I knew Gary could do it,” said Lowery, who led Caledonia with 126 yards on 14 carries. “He”s a freshman, but he runs hard and he gives it 100 percent. It makes my job easier back there knowing he can come in and do that. It”s a big relief.”
While Walden turned in the key play that sparked Caledonia, Lowery and the offensive line wore down the Tigers. With 51 running plays, Caledonia pounded the ball inside and out with a revamped Wing-T offense that highlighted Lowery”s hard-nosed running style. Flanked by Luke Eads, Cole Reed-Wood, and Randy Randle for most of the game, the Confederates chewed up the home turf for 356 rushing yards.
“It”s no secret what we are going to do,” Kendrick said. “You just have to figure out how to stop it.”
Caledonia struck first on its opening drive on a 25-yard field goal by Josh Kugel. But the Tigers answered, mounting a five-play, 81-yard drive that culminated in a 12-yard scoring run by senior running back Corbin White.
The Confederates scored early in the second frame to take a 10-7 advantage when Marchbanks found tight end Cole Carter for a 7-yard touchdown pass. But the Tigers roared back and scored with less than two minutes left in the first half when Patrick Jones hauled in a scoring pass from 31 yards to take a 14-10 lead.
Entering the game, Kendrick believed his defense was going to have to stop that scoring tandem to earn the victory. He was right. White had 51 rushing yards in the first half on four carries, while Jones, who was recorded as a legitimate 4.34, 40-yard dash sprinter, was limited to one carry for 18 yards and two catches for 38 yards.
“I told the guys at halftime that if we were going to win we had to stop (White),” Kendrick said. “We didn”t completely stop him, but we slowed him down a good bit. We started hitting him harder as the game went by and it showed late in the game.”
It showed on the stat sheet as well. White had 49 yards in the final half.
Caledonia extended its lead in the fourth quarter when Randle scored from 13 yards. But a mishandled snap and low kick by Kugel missed to make it 23-14 with 6 minutes, 54 seconds left in the game.
Nettleton held serve, scoring less than three minutes later on a 3-yard scamper by quarterback Dakota Cruber. Nettleton also faltered on the extra point, salvaging the Confederates” three-point advantage with four and a half minutes left in regulation.
On the ensuing kickoff, Eads put Caledonia in good field position with a 20-yard kick return past the 40-yard line. But a block in the back penalty pushed the Confederates back to their 13. Caledonia stayed on the ground and with Lowery on the sidelines drinking fluids and working out his cramps, Walden and Reed-Wood took charge. Walden”s first carry went for 16 yards that gave the Confederates some breathing room. Reed-Wood then bullied his way for six more. Marchbanks tallied seven more on the next play.
Across midfield, Caledonia watched as the clock neared the 60-second mark. Marchbanks took a knee at the Tigers” 30. He was instructed to kneel a second time but to take a couple of steps back to burn a few more seconds off the clock. He backpedaled nearly 20 yards on third down and took a knee with 6.4 seconds remaining.
“We almost messed that up,” Kendrick said. “We told him to take a few extra steps back and he didn”t totally understand. It left us with more time than we wanted and it was either punt it back to them or run a play. And we weren”t going to give them the ball back.”
That miscue afforded Lowery one more chance to carry the ball. He darted in from the sidelines and took the snap, broke the first line of defense, escaped an attempted arm tackle, and raced 40 yards to the end zone as the final horn sounded, setting off a celebration on the sidelines as the home crowd cheered his every step.
The Confederates didn”t try the extra point.
“I”m telling you, this group is different,” said Kendrick, whose team equaled its win total from last year. “We still have work to do, but this group is going to do it. They are willing and they want it. This is what this program needed. I believe in these guys, and, more importantly, they believe in themselves.”
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