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Resilient Rebels dump Warriors in opener
Devon Swinney
Rebels running back Devon Swinney (34) crosses the goal line untouched on a two-point try Friday night, much to the delight of quarterback Zach Garcia (7). - photo by Photo by Gilbert Miller

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

SPRINGFIELD — The 2019 football season ended in disappointment for Effingham County and 2020 didn’t start any better last Friday night against Grovetown.

The Rebels were three-and-out on their first possession. Then, inexplicably, the sprinkler system at Rebel Field began spraying.

Before the second quarter was two minutes old, ECHS had fumbled twice and trailed by 10 — not exactly the way a 2-8 team wants to begin anew.

Somehow, the Rebels, who lost their last four games and failed to make the playoffs a year ago, remained undaunted.

The defense pitched a shutout the rest of the way and maybe only a Vegas card-playing gambler could truly appreciate how ECHS arrived at the coveted number of 21 — a 3 (a field goal), a 2 (a safety) and a pair of 8s (two touchdowns and two 2-point conversions) — during a gritty 21-13 victory over Grovetown.

“Any time you win it’s a great feeling and it makes us all feel good to get off to a great start,” ECHS coach Buddy Holder said. “The kids ultimately have to make the plays but I thought the entire coaching staff helped make things happen. We had a lot of eyes making the necessary adjustments.”

No doubt more adjustments will be needed for Friday’s upcoming powerhouse opponent Benedictine, a 58-26 winner over Burke County in its opener.

But the Rebels had reasons to be proud of a resilient opening night against Grovetown, a four-win team in 2019.

ECHS’ new defensive coordinator Mike Adams’ offseason adjustment to a four-man front paid immediate dividends. The Rebels surrendered just four first downs (one by penalty), 87 total yards and one offensive touchdown.

Adams praised linebackers Kameron White, Luke Roberts and Tucker Wilson and defensive line coach Nico Guggino before realizing he might be leaving someone out.

“I thought we competed,” Adams said. “Our players played so hard. All of our guys did so many great things it’s hard to single anyone out.”

Getting the ball to 5-foot-7 junior running back Miquel Allen in space appeared to be one of the biggest offensive adjustments. Allen finished with 64 offensive yards (29 rushing, 35 receiving) and two touchdowns on seven touches.

Just 35 seconds before halftime, Allen took a screen pass 22 yards for a score and the ensuing two-point conversion — a strike from Zach Garcia to diving Matthew Ford — tied the game at 13.

“We practiced it all week and executed it for the game,” Allen said.

Holder didn’t wait to throw his hands in the air to signal touchdown before Allen crossed the goalline. The call caught the Warrior defense by surprise.

“You could see it was going to be a touchdown as it developed,” Holder said. “Miguel did a great job carrying out that play and doing something with the ball in his hands.”

Allen, who said he was suffering from cramps, punched in the game-winning touchdown in the third quarter on a 1-yard run, set up by Grovetown’s bad snap in punt formation that gave ECHS possession at the 1.

Allen was happy to reciprocate misfortune on a miscue. He fumbled on his first catch and Warrior Cardelle Rudolph returned the loose ball 10 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.

“I just had to overcome adversity for the team,” Allen said. “We had to win. We worked hard all week. It feels real good coming off a bad season.”

The Rebels managed just 141 offensive yards, but the defense and special teams created scoring opportunities.

Khiry Wallace’s 40-yard kickoff return set up Wyatt Lein’s 38-yard field goal on the second play of the second quarter to cut Grovetown’s lead to 7-3.

The visitors took a 13-3 advantage when speedy Chris Hart sprinted 54 yard for a TD on the next play from scrimmage.

But that’s when the Warriors self-destructed. Safety Ashley Thompson tackled punter Connor Daniels in the end zone for a safety after a bad snap to make it 13-5.

On the next Grovetown possession, Tyler Wells had an interception to set up the Rebels’ tying score.

Another errant snap in punt formation led to ECHS’ winning score.

“There were first-game jitters with everybody, but I was proud of the kids. … Hopefully, we got all our little mistakes out tonight and we can build going forward,” Holder said.