Christian Wafford piled up 223 yards and two touchdowns.
(Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)
The final outcome is not what they were hoping for, but the Whitewater Wildcats showed yet again why they are becoming one of the state's most respected programs in a 34-27 loss to the Warner Robins Demons. It was everything you could ask for in a state playoff game with two excellent teams battling right down to the wire. In the end it was just yards that kept the Wildcats from advancing.
"It was a great game. Any fan definitely got their money's worth down here tonight," said Whitewater head coach Amos McCreary. "I don't see how you can come to a high school football game and see much more action. There were hits and tackles and runs and everything that you try to teach from day one."
From the first drive until the final seconds it was a battle. Only when Whitewater came up just two yards short of the goal line in the waning seconds could Warner Robins claim victory.
Being an underdog has never fazed the Wildcats before. Not even against a powerhouse from Warner Robins. It was just 2010 when Whitewater took the long trip down there and knocked off a then top-ranked Northside squad 28-21. This time around it was Northside's rival that they pushed to the limits. They had chances to win, but turnovers proved costly. No matter the size of the hole though, they kept digging.
"We came up short and I just think it's one of those games where it's hard to overcome all the mistakes. I really think if you cut that out, we beat them. But you know that's just the way it goes," said McCreary. "As far as the kids effort, I couldn't ask for anything more. I couldn't ask for a bunch of guys to play any harder."
Whitewater kept grinding away at the Demons. Most of the night, the Wildcats were able to pound the ball on the ground. Warner Robins supporters were heard noting that no one had run the ball on them like that all year. The boys in the trenches, Dylan Crozier, Coey Gates, Alex Neal, Josh Martinez, Cole Rains, Devin Moore, Spencer Stieb, and tight ends Matt Ogle and Wyatt Burke, were the unheralded stars of the show. They paved the way for Christian Wafford to rack up 223 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
"Christian Wafford ran his heart out all night. Colton Clemons came on in the fourth quarter and lifted us up a little bit," McCreary said. "The offensive line all night long controlled them. Up front we were able to do what we wanted to do."
Though his stats didn't show it with three interceptions, quarterback Jay Ashley was a big time player. Ashley made countless plays to keep his team in the action. They wouldn't have been in the game late (and not in the playoffs at all) if not for his gutsy play.
Warner Robins started the game by with a pair of big plays before the Wildcat defense. The second and third plays of the game went for a combined 26 yards as the Demons looked prime to get early momentum. Instead, Josh Alexander did what he's done all season and make a key play. The wide receiver screen can often be used to fool young cornerbacks, but Alexander snuffed it out for a four yard loss to help stall the drive.
The Demons again thought they were in luck after their punt was downed at the one yard line. Instead it only briefly slowed Whitewater as they put together a 99 yard touchdown drive. The first play was a big one as Jay Ashley hit a wide open Matt Ogle up the seam for 44 yards. The third play of the drive was another large gain as Ashley and Alexander hooked up for 24 yards. Whitewater's drive appeared dead when a fourth and four turned into a fourth and nine after a false start. Not even close. Ashley hit Wafford on a wheel route for 13 yards to move the chains. Ashley capped off the drive with a short three yard touchdown by stretching the ball just over the goal line. Liam Voight added the extra point for a 7-0 Whitewater lead.
Warner Robins answered back with a touchdown on their next possession. Quarterback Caden Johnston found fullback Tyler Cranford wide open up the sideline for a 20 yard score to tie the game.
Whitewater wasted no time responding. Wafford raced through a gaping hole and went 70 yards untouched. A two point conversion attempt failed to put the Wildcats ahead 13-7 as the first quarter wound down.
Warner Robins took advantage of a roughing the punter call to extend their next drive, one that ended with a 30 yard field goal.
The miscues started piling up on Whitewater's next series. After a false start, the first snap sailed over Ashley's head. He was able to corral it and somehow get out of the pocket and launch a bomb. Unfortunately a wide open receiver dropped it. The next play was another drop on a sure first down. The third try was decidedly not the charm as Warner Robins picked it off and returned it to the Wildcat 15 yard line. Whitewater's defense would come through with a huge stand to force a 21 yard field goal that tied the game at 13-13.
Warner Robins snared another interception on the next drive and returned it past midfield. The 33 yard drive was finished off with a 10 yard touchdown pass. Marquez Callaway pushed off the Whitewater corner, but got away with it as Warner Robins pulled head 20-13 with just 35 seconds till halftime.
The sour end of the first half didn't slow down the Wildcats. Colton Clemons returned the kickoff out near midfield. The next play was even better as Wafford to a sweep around the left end, then slicing back across the defense for a 64 yard touchdown to tie the game back up.
Whitewater's next series ended in another turnover that Warner Robins turned into a touchdown and a 27-20 lead.
The next drive for Warner Robins was aided by another bad call as Whitewater's Justin Peck played a deep ball perfectly but was flagged for pass interference. The next play went for a 52 yard touchdown pass and a 34-20 lead to kick off the fourth quarter.
With their backs against the wall, Whitewater got to work. On the first play, Ashley hit Wafford for 14 yards to get the ball rolling. On third and ten, Ashley again found Wafford, this time across the middle for 18 yards. Wafford was the victim of a vicious helmet to helmet hit that went uncalled. He would have to leave the game temporarily.
With Wafford out, other had to step up. When the team needed a spark, Kyle Dugger kept coming up big. Dugger's first catch was a 34 yard touchdown on a jump ball from Ashley. He would later add a 28 yard catch on a key second and long.
"Kyle Dugger came in and made some big plays for us," McCreary noted.
Down seven with ten minutes to play, the Wildcat defense needed a stand and got one. Ian McIntyre had a big deflection to swat down one pass attempt. A bad snap would back the Demons up 18 yards and force a punt.
Whitewater had 78 yards in front of them and chewed up almost all of them as they stretched to the tie the game. Ashley moved the chains with a nine yard scramble then hit Jonathan Womack for 10 yards. A late hit would tack on an extra 15 yards and move the Cats past midfield. Ashley and Dugger's 28 yard combo got them down to the red zone.
The Wildcats would get oh so close to tying up the game. With time running down, the Cats got inside the five yard line, but Warner Robins brought Wafford down at the two yard line on fourth and goal to ice the game.
It was a tough ending for a great team and a particularly special group of seniors. They fought tooth and nail all season long. They almost had the big upset.
"They're just a great group of kids. They're fun to be around," beamed McCreary. "They have a good time, but when it comes time to play they play hard."
Though the season didn't end as they hoped, the Whitewater Wildcats still strung together another good run. They will regroup and be back for another shot next year.