By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
HINESVILLE — Indecision on the opening kickoff led to a return to the 4-yard line and Game No. 10 for South Effingham’s football team Friday night wasn’t starting any better than the last nine ended.
But the Mustangs proved to be a resilient bunch. They marched 96 yards on 17 plays, using their tricky single-wing offense to play keep-away for nearly 10 minutes, ending with a 22-yard touchdown run by Desmond House.
The drive set the tone for the night and SEHS avoided its first winless season in school history by defeating Bradwell Institute 28-14 at Olvey Field.
“I’m so proud of everybody who stuck it out, everybody in the organization, the parents, the fans, the school, especially these kids and the seniors,” Mustangs head coach Nathan Clark said. “They fought and fought and fought and ended on a good note.”
House rushed for 132 yards on 28 carries, but quickly pointed out he didn’t do it alone.
“It wasn’t just me getting 132 yards. ‘We’ got 132 yards,” House said. “You don’t do anything in this game by yourself.”
Actually, “we” rushed for 288 yards. Larry Scott had 87 on 18 carries, Brayden Bell added 52 yards and a touchdown on five carries, and Joell Laldee had 17 yards and a score on four carries.
Liam Rickman booted field goals of 32 and 20 yards and had two point-after kicks.
After the first touchdown, House hooked up with Malcolm Brown, an offensive lineman who lined up as an eligible receiver, for a two-point conversion.
Mustangs defensive lineman Malcolm Brown was wearing a No. 3 jersey to honor quarterback Alex Cela, a fellow senior who missed the final six games of the season after suffering a broken collarbone against Effingham County.
“We fought for one another,” Brown said. “We talked about this all week. We felt like we could get a “W” against (Bradwell). Coaches came up with a good scheme and the rest was just effort. We fought for it as a team.”
The Mustangs probably didn’t want to think about the alternative. Since the school started in 1996, South has never had a winless season. It won just one game in 2016 and again in 2017.
After winning two games and failing to make the playoffs in 2018, Clark took over as coach and led the team to a 6-1 start in 2019.
With the graduation of key seniors, duplicating 2019 would have been difficult under any circumstance. But the coronavirus took away key summer practices and an outbreak in the preseason led to a 10-day quarantine almost leading up to the season opener.
Then Cela was hurt and a key position thin on experience got thinner.
“It’s been a tough year,” Clark said. “2020 has been hard for everybody and it’s been tough on this football team. These kids have been through a lot. The seniors, to go out victorious, they kept working, they kept believing, they didn’t give up and at the end of a day, they came out with W.”
Bradwell, which finished its season 0-7-1, has been through similar strife. Its school district opted to push back the start of the football season because of COVID-19 concerns and the team was three weeks behind just about every school in Georgia.
Nothing went smoothly for the Tigers on Friday and it wasn’t just football-related problems. The sprinkler system inexplicably came on halting play in the first half.
Then the chain crew was late getting back from halftime intermission and Bradwell was penalized five yards for delay of game after the kickoff.
Consecutive unsportsman-like penalties during the first possession of the third quarter backed the Tigers into a second-down-and-45 predicament.
You get the picture.
On fourth-and-41, Bradwell got off a 7-yard punt, and SEHS took over at the Tigers’ 26. Two plays later, Bell scored on a reverse to make it 21-0.
Bradwell rallied to get within 28-14 with 8:30 to go, but the Mustangs went on a 14-play, time-consuming drive and before being stopped on downs at the Tigers 7 and an elusive victory was 43 seconds away.
“We played well tonight and it gives us some momentum going into the offseason,” Clark said.