By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SAVANNAH – South Effingham was one yard and an extra-point kick away from falling behind lowly Islands High School on Sept. 1.
Three minutes later, the visiting Mustangs were cruising en route to a convincing 35-0 victory.
"It's a different South this year," SEHS senior middle linebacker Jeremiah Washington said. "We're coming."
For the first time since 2019, South (2-0) will be coming into its third game of the season undefeated when it travels to Hinesville to play Bradwell Institute on Sept. 8.
The Mustangs didn't play well in the early going against Islands, but they ended with a gallop to the finish line, ironically starting with a stop.
The Sharks, losers of 17 straight games, used a 67-yard kickoff return, a 34-yard pass reception and a 3-yard pass interference call to get within inches of SEHS' goal line.
But South's defense wouldn't back down the remaining inch. Twice, the Mustangs made stops for no gain.
Then, Islands' fumbled and lineman Ashton Anderson recovered.
Eight plays and 99 yards later, SEHS running back Kadin Ward went 28 yards for a score and Kaden DeGenaro's two-point conversion run made it 14-0.
"We were down but the defense bucked up and we stopped them," Washington said. "It was a true team effort, a lot of hard work from practice. That's what you're going to see from us this year. We're going to play hard every game."
South scored on three straight second-half possessions during a seven-minute span and escaped threatening waters.
"(The fumble) was a big momentum changer and to go 99 yards the other way, that was huge," Mustangs coach Loren Purvis said. "Good teams do that. I was very excited about that."
There were a lot of numbers to be excited about. South outgained Islands 394-37 in total yards. The defense registered six tackles for losses, which resulted in a minus-47 rushing yards, and forced four turnovers.
Ward finished with 88 rushing yards, 84 in the first half.
Aubrey Heath had the Mustangs' first score on a 9-yard run on a fourth-down play in the second quarter. Ward had the second TD. Gannon White's 9-yard TD run midway through the third quarter started the 21-point barrage.
DeGenaro completed seven of 13 passes for 163 yards and two scores – a 43-yarder to Ashton Troutman and a 29-yarder that eventually pin-balled to a diving Jaylen Price.
"I thought we saw some lackluster play at the start, but then they turned it on and never turned it off," said Purvis about his squad's performance after the goal-line turnover. "We challenged them (at halftime) to come back and finish the game. Kaden was one of the guys who responded. He's growing every day as a leader."
South hasn't had a winning season since 2019, but a season-opening win against Vidalia – a team it lost to a year earlier – has excitement growing.
The Mustangs beat Islands 24-0 last year and won by a wider margin this season despite a shaky first 18 minutes.
South surrendered kickoff returns of 38 and 67 yards, had two kicks blocked (a field-goal try and point-after-touchdown) and gave up a 34-yard pass completion.
Another Islands' pass play (with a receiver open by 10 yards beyond the secondary) would have a big gainer except Moose Bringer (not Bringer Moose as the public address announcer called him) recovered to make a great breakup.
South committed 12 penalties for 103 yards.
But a solid defensive effort overshadowed any hiccups. Defensive back Chase Whittle had a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss, but his biggest impact play of the night came when he chased down Islands receiver Dillon Bradley after a reception to the SEHS 4.
Washington had two sacks, three tackles for losses and one caused fumble.
Dominic Martell and DaMyon McFarlin added interceptions.
"We kind of came out flat to be honest with the storm rolling in and two days off from school," Purvis said about the threat of Hurricane Idalia during the week. "It's tough on young kids because their routine is completely thrown off. It's tough to handle that and then play well on Friday night."
With expected clear skies ahead, South hopes to extend its winning streak to three against Bradwell Institute (1-2) on Friday. The Tigers snapped a 30-game losing streak against Greenbrier in the season finale a year ago.
Bradwell already has another win this season, beating neighboring Liberty County between losses to Wayne County and New Hampstead.