By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
BRUNSWICK – The Effingham County Rebels can’t dwell on disappointment. They have a state playoff game to worry about Friday night.
The Rebels gave a spirited effort in a 30-27 loss to Brunswick at Glynn County Stadium last Friday and saw an opportunity to party like it was 1995 fade.
For the second straight year, ECHS (7-3, 5-1 Region 2-AAAAAA) fell three points short of capturing a region championship and the 27-year drought without a title will be put on hold for at least another year.
The next challenge, however, should be formidable. First-round opponent Lee County, the third-seeded team in Region 1, ranked ninth in Class AAAAAA, is coming to The Griff.
“It’s going to be a great program with great players and great coaches, just like this. We have to come to practice with our hard hats on,” said Rebels coach John Ford before seeing the matchup, but knowing the reputation of powerful teams from Region 1.
Undefeated Brunswick (10-0, 6-0) presented a taste of what the competition will look like moving forward. The eighth-ranked Pirates used their speed in the early going to make explosive plays and ECHS couldn’t catch up.
Wide receiver Terry Mitchell, who wears No. 10 like his favorite player Tyreek Hill (speedy wideout of the Miami Dolphins), had a Tyreek Hill-type of impact with 10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell also returned a punt 73 yards for a score.
“(No.) 10 (Mitchell) can run. No. 4 (Jamarious Towns) can run. No. 18 (Jayden Drayton) can run and their DBs are like a track team,” Ford said. “Obviously, (defending speed) was an area of concern going into the (practice) week. You do everything you can to mitigate it and rep it, but it’s hard to do.”
Mitchell caught a 53-yard touchdown pass. Towns had a 68-yard TD run and Mitchell added the punt return score while putting the Rebels in a 20-7 first-half hole.
Despite the early onslaught, ECHS had competitive moments. Jayden Evans broke a 57-yard run on the Rebels’ opening snap and, two plays later, quarterback Nate Hayes hit Keion Wallace with an apparent 40-yard TD pass. But a holding call negated the touchdown.
Defensive back Ashley Thompson had an interception on Brunswick’s first offensive play.
On ECHS’s third possession, Evans’ 24-yard run followed by Thompson’s 25-yard catch and a key roughing the kicker penalty set up a 9-play, 78-yard drive, culminated by Hayes’ 8-yard TD run to tie the game at 7.
Towns and Mitchell made long, demoralizing TD plays in the final 3:10 of the first half to build Brunswick’s halftime lead.
The Pirates’ defense took over after the first quarter. ECHS managed only four offensive yards in the second and third quarters combined. Evans finished with 133 rushing yards -- his fourth straight 100-yard game (1,009 for the regular season) – but was held to 26 yards over the final three quarters.
“We were down but never out of it,” said Hayes, who threw second-half touchdown passes to Thompson (65 yards) and Wallace (22 yards).
Brunswick errors only strengthened the Rebels’ resolve. The Pirates had 18 penalties for 183 yards and had two touchdowns called back. They had three turnovers – Messiah Bacon returned one fumble for a touchdown.
A bad snap in punt formation resulted in the Brunswick punter throwing a hurried incompletion and the Pirates failed to cover an onsides kick to give ECHS a chance in the final 19 seconds.
“The game had a weird flow to it because of all the mistakes. It was a wild game,” Ford said.
The Rebels can’t expect as much help from Lee County, a squad with championship pedigree after winning state titles in 2017 and 2018 with current South Effingham head coach Nathan Clark as its offensive coordinator.
This year, led by sophomore running back Ousmane Kromah, the Trojans (7-3) are averaging more than 37 points a game. Their only losses were to undefeated Colquitt County (ranked second in Class AAAAAAA), undefeated Thomas County Central (the Region 1 champion ranked second in Class AAAAAA) and Northside-Warner Robins.
In the first nine games, Kromah had four 200-yard rushing games, including 275 yards and five touchdowns against 10th-ranked Houston County.
It will be another big challenge but Hayes says the playoffs gives his squad a chance to soften the disappointment of the region loss.
“It definitely hurt us, but we have something to look forward to,” Hayes said. “We have a home playoff game and we have a playoff run to make.”
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