By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — Effingham County students welcomed a Friday off for fall break. The Rebels football team continued the day’s theme of relaxation with a listless start against Grovetown.
ECHS’ most reliable hands dropped passes and its reliable defense saw the Warriors set up a touchdown by completing a fourth-and-22 pass.
Suddenly, the Rebels were in a fight with a squad that entered The Griff winless in Region 2-AAAAAA play.
But ECHS reversed fields with a lengthy touchdown drive late in the third quarter and a big special teams play from Keion Wallace to turn away upset-minded Grovetown, 28-14.
Coach John Ford didn’t want to make excuses.
“At 7:30, nobody cares (about your day),” he said. “We have to play better, no doubt. … We didn’t play our best game for whatever reason, but it was a region win so we’ll take all of those we can get.”
The Rebels (5-2, 3-0 Region 2-AAAAAA) won their fifth game in a row, equalling their longest winning streak since 2002. ECHS also won five in a row in 2016, 2012 and 2006. It won six straight in 2002.
Despite getting outgained 275-232 in total yardage, the Rebels capitalized on two Warrior turnovers and Wallace’s 66-yard punt return for a touchdown.
ECHS quarterback Nate Hayes threw three TD passes and running back Jayden Evans grounded out 110 yards on 20 carries. Five of Evans’ runs picked up first downs on third down or fourth down.
The game was tied 14-14 with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter when Hayes and Wallace hooked up on a 9-yard TD to put the Rebels ahead for good.
ECHS’ defense stopped Grovetown and forced a punt on the next possession. Wallace then finished off the Warriors with his long return.
It was a nice rebound for the highly regarded senior wide receiver, who has a three-star rating by Rivals. Wallace dropped a sure TD pass during the Rebels’ opening possession.
“Really, you have to have a short memory, but I know I have to get that back,” Wallace said. “That should be a layup for me. I have to get that back. That won’t happen again, I promise you. Like I said, short memory, you have to move on and make bigger plays to help your team.”
The defense made big plays to offset early missed opportunities. Cooper Nease’s hit on Grovetown quarterback Amare Clark produced a fumble that Kyler Stone recovered at the ECHS 34. Nine plays later, Hayes and Timmy Brown hooked up on a 21-yard scoring strike to make it 7-0.
The Warriors tied the game with a 13-play, 69-yard drive that used up more than seven minutes. Clark’s perfect throw to Joseph Jean gained 25 yards on a fourth-and-22 play to set up Clark’s 1-yard TD run.
But in the final minutes of the first half, Rebels defensive back Messiah Bacon was in the perfect position to intercept Clark’s pass on the next Grovetown possession. Bacon returned the turnover 20 yards to the Warrior 27. And with 24.3 seconds left in the half, Hayes found Ashley Thompson open for a 12-yard TD pass and a 14-7 lead.
Grovetown tied the game in the third quarter on Clark’s 18-yard TD scramble, but Wallace and the Rebels responded.
“Keion is a great player and that’s what great players have to do,” Ford said. “The only play that matters is the next play, whether (the first play) was a good play or bad play, just play the next one. I’m glad they’ve learned that.”
ECHS now turns its attention to Evans High School (3-3, 1-1). The Knights, who will be coming off a bye week, beat Grovetown 42-15 on Sept. 23.