WAYCROSS — South Effingham head coach Nathan Clark was quick to turn the page on Friday’s Region 2-AAAAA contest at Memorial Stadium.
Despite a 49-28 loss to perennial powerhouse Ware County, he knows his team (6-3, 1-2) still has a chance to write a happy ending to the book on its 2019 season. The Mustangs can grab a No. 3 seed for the state playoffs by beating Statesboro (3-4, 0-2) at The Corral this Friday.
“We will have to play well if we are going to beat (the Blue Devils),” Clark said. “If we able to do it, it will be a very big win for securing a playoff spot. Hopefully, it will be a number three seed.”
A loss to the Blue Devils would put the Mustangs’ playoff future in jeopardy.
“Obviously, we really need this victory because you never know what will happen when Statesboro and New Hampstead (3-5, 0-2) play,” Clark said. “It could come down to tiebreakers and there all kinds of crazy rules, and we don’t want to get into all that.”
In the early going against the Gators, it looked like a No. 2 seed was within the Mustangs’ grasp. They recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff and got into the end zone on a five-yard run by Rocko Griffin after just 15 seconds had elapsed.
Ware County quickly gathered itself after the miscue, however, and took control, racing to a 28-7 lead with 2:29 left in the first half.
“My hat is off to (the Gators),” Clark said. “They are really good. They were a lot better than I anticipated.”
In its previous game, Ware County (5-3, 2-0) struggled to beat Statesboro 16-7.
“Just from watching the tape of that game, I guess they just didn’t play well,” Clark said. “They definitely played well tonight. There is no doubt about that. We haven’t faced anybody like this all year.
“It’s not even close.”
The Gators were punishing on both sides of he ball. Their hard-hitting defenders surrendered virtually no rushing yards while their offense racked up 417. Quarterback Thomas Castellanos amassed 230 yards on the ground by himself, including touchdown jaunts of 53, 29, 63 and eight yards.
Castellanos confounded the Mustangs on third down. He ripped off a 26-yard run on a third-and-13 situation on their first scoring drive and his 29-yard touchdown came on a third-and-6 play.
South Effingham didn’t give up, however. It trimmed the gap to 28-14 just before the first half expired after Taylor Jackson hit Zach Taylor with a three-yard pass.
The Mustangs reduced the lead to 14 points again after Jackson fired a 56-yard scoring strike to Noah Hoang. It came right after Ware County posted the opening score of the third period on one of Castellanos’ long runs.
The Gators maintained control by tallying two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The final one came with 1:27 left on a one-yard plunge by Dream Gainer.
Hoang closed South Effingham’s scoring with a 16-yard reception with 4:27 left.
The Mustangs’ cause was frequently hindered by self-inflicted wounds, including their first lost-fumble of the season.
“We didn’t execute very well in the first half,” Clark said. “We dropped several passes and we threw an interception. We did some things we haven’t been doing.
“We’ve been very good this year about not turning the ball over but, tonight, I think we had three turnovers.”
Jackson passed for 295 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
This week the Mustangs will work to correct their mistakes and prepare for a Statesboro defense that allows a region-best 17.7 points per game.
“Coach (Jeff) Kaiser does a phenomenal job and their defense is really strong,” Clark said. “They also have a really good running back (Jaylen Roberson) and they have some tall wideouts.
“They have thrown the ball down the field some and it is definitely going to be a challenge.”