By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD -- The band played, the cheerleaders cheered and the weather cooperated Friday night at Rebel Field.
Effingham County’s Blue-White intrasquad game marked high school football’s first public appearance in the county this year and Rebels coach Buddy Holder had multiple reasons to be satisfied.
His defense, a vulnerable part of the team in 2019, was getting stops, but first and foremost, football seemed to be moving forward.
“It just felt normal and that’s what we keep telling the kids, we have to get back to some normalcy,” said Holder after the Blue team defeated the White 7-6 in overtime. “To be out here coaching every day, if you can stay away from the lightning bolts, it’s really, really fun.”
A crowd of about 1,500 was treated to a couple of extra possessions which led to the only scoring after two dominating 12-minute periods by the defenses.
Blue team quarterback Zach Garcia floated a pass to Khiry Wallace in the corner of the end zone for a 1-yard TD and Grant Oliver added the point-after kick during the first possession of overtime.
The White answered with Matthew Ford’s 12-yard TD run. The team tried to win with a two-point conversion run, but the Blue defense made the game-winning stop.
“Friday night lights, you always look forward to it and right there in overtime, that’s what it’s all about, having fun and battling,” Garcia said.
It was a festive night, but make no mistake, concerns of COVID-19 continue to lurk. Spring football and most of the summer workouts were canceled for Georgia high school football teams. The Georgia High School Association took away preseason scrimmages against opposing schools.
And every day, it seems, ECHS’ schedule changes after school districts make changes. The Rebels’ opening day is now set for Sept. 4 at home against Grovetown.
Anticipation for the football season remains high as ECHS looks to rebound from a 2-8 record last season when the Rebels failed to make the state playoffs for the first time since 2015. Athletic director Matt Huntley said more than 350 tickets were sold online for the intrasquad game.
Fans were asked to social distance six feet apart and the ECHS marching band sat in the visitors section to create extra space in the homeside stands Friday night.
“We’re asking people to help us stay safe and keep our kids on the field,” Huntley said. “We’re excited to get going. This is something they’ve been working for and competing in front of a crowd was something they were looking forward to.”
For most of the scrimmage, the defense, directed by first-year coordinator Mike Adams, had the upper hand. Both offenses combined for just 107 yards and seven first downs (in 43 plays in regulation) and a defensive play nearly won the game.
Midway through the second half, defensive back Ashley Thompson of the White team returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown. But the run was negated by a penalty.
The defensive showing was welcomed for a team that allowed 31.5 points a game last season.
After the scrimmage, Holder credited defenders Keion and Khiry Wallace, Timmy Brown, Thompson, Keysean McCard, Trevor Shanning, Tucker Wilson and Tyler Wells.
Brown had an interception in the first half.
Holder said a new season has brought a new attitude.
“To see a split squad play to overtime, it was exciting,” Holder said. “They were jacked up. They’ve been in good spirits during practice and they’ve gone above and beyond. No matter the conditions, the lightning, the weather, they’ve been focused and giving effort. This is a fun group to coach.”
The night started with the Effingham County Middle School defeating the high school C-team 14-0 after two 8-minute periods.
Elusive Panthers quarterback Lamar Roberts ran for a touchdown and threw for a score and a two-point conversion.
Da’Maurion Shankle caught a 9-yard TD pass and the two-point conversion.
Roberts had a 1-yard TD run in the final seconds of the game.