By Donald Health
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — They stood at midfield and hoisted the County Championship Classic trophy and celebrated Friday night with joy usually reserved for birthdays and last days of school.
“They’re excited to have the trophy back, back here where we feel it belongs,” said Effingham County head coach Buddy Holder after the Rebels held off rival South Effingham 10-0 at Rebel Field.
A noticeably smaller crowd than last season’s 8,000 watched the Rebels win for the seventh time in the last nine meetings against SEHS, a school formed in 1996 by the split of ECHS.
Last season, South celebrated after a 41-27 victory at The Corral and took the county trophy to Guyton.
Now the Rebels have it back.
“On Friday night, we reminded them — remember what it felt like last year,” Holder said.
Much of Friday night showcased the rebuilding efforts of both programs. The defenses are ahead of their offenses, and it wasn’t until the sixth possession of the game before either team registered a first down.
But the Rebels (2-3, 1-0 Region 2-6A) found ways to make a couple of more plays for their winning edge. A first-quarter, 46-yard touchdown pass from Zach Garcia to Keion Wallace gave ECHS a 7-0 lead, and Miquel Allen’s second-quarter interception in the end zone wrestled away the Mustangs’ best scoring opportunity of the night.
Wyatt Lein booted a 26-yard field goal with 6:43 left to seal the Rebels’ win.
“We’re 1-0 in the region and beating our rival made it that much better,” Holder said.
South (0-4, 0-1 Region 2-6A) was limited offensively after starting quarterback Alex Cela went down with an injury midway through the second quarter and did not return.
Cela, who had 57 yards rushing before leaving, was injured running an option play.
After the game, Mustangs coach Nathan Clark wouldn’t speculate on the injury or how the team would handle losing Cela for any length of time.
“We’ll figure it out,” Clark said. “We have a lot of good players and coaches on this team and we’ll have a plan.”
SEHS elected to use running back Cameron Edwards at quarterback in a wildcat formation, a similar strategy that Wayne County used against the Mustangs a week earlier.
Initially, South had some success and a 55-yard run by Larry Scott late in the second quarter gave the Mustangs a scoring opportunity at the Rebels’ 15.
Two plays later, Edwards lofted a pass for Andrew Butler in the back of the end zone. Allen and Butler, both leaping, appeared to have their hands on the ball at the same time, but Allen pulled it away as the players crashed to the ground.
In the third quarter, South threatened again but ECHS’ defensive lineman Jalen Barton had a fourth-down tackle for loss to stop a drive that had reached the Rebels 32.
SEHS won the battle of total yardage 182-168 and crossed midfield five times. The Mustangs drove inside the ECHS 35 four times.
But the Rebels defense, which allowed 31.5 points a game last season, didn’t break. ECHS limited the Mustangs to 2-for-10 on third-down conversions and 0-for-3 on fourth down.
Defensive lineman, Xayvier Coppock, recorded two of the team’s seven tackles for losses. Holder added Keysean McCarr and Bryce van der Hoek to a long list of defensive standouts.
“The kids played their minds out (defensively),” Holder said. “They were geared in from the first play of the game. They did what they had to to be successful. We didn’t give up a huge play that would have been a game-changer.”
The Mustangs also played well on defense. They did not allow a first down on five of ECHS’ eight full possessions.
“I thought we fought really hard, but that’s life,” Clark said. “Life’s not always fair and we’re all getting a taste of how to handle that these days. We have to keep fighting.”
South Effingham returns to action Friday to host Brunswick, which is coming off a 24-21 win over Glynn Academy in a similar local rivalry setting.
The Pirates (3-2, 1-0) have only lost to state-ranked Pierce County (sixth in Class 3A) and Benedictine (third in Class 4A).
Effingham County will have the week off. The Rebels will play host to Richmond Hill on Oct. 23.