By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD -- Pats on the back kept coming, his heart kept beating out of control and Effingham County kicker Luis Meza admitted his emotions inexplicably were confused.
And that was five minutes after the senior booted a 22-yard field goal as time expired lifting the Rebels past Statesboro 34-31, setting up a showdown with Brunswick this Friday for the Region 2-AAAAAA championship.
With its third straight win, ECHS (6-2, 4-1 Region 2-AAAAAA) assured itself a spot in the Class AAAAAA state tournament.
The Rebels will be looking for their first region championship since 1995 against the fourth-ranked Pirates.
It took a memorable effort to squeak by Statesboro. In a game that probably will be talked about in Springfield for years to come, ECHS overcame numerous Blue Devil big plays before Meza’s short kick loomed the largest.
“It was super stressful,” Meza said. “My heart was beating super fast. I’ve never been so nervous in my life. They were coming hard (to block the kick) but my coaches prepared me for this.”
His kick appeared to be partially blocked, but still knuckle-balled through the uprights to begin a frenzied celebration.
A week earlier against Bradwell Institute, the Rebels kicking team looked shaky, botching four of five extra-point attempts.
“I wasn’t doing the little things right but I made sure I prepared myself better (during the week) than the last time,” Meza said.
Meza slipped and missed a 36-yard field-goal try just before the end of the first half against the Blue Devils but there weren’t any slips the rest of the way. He was perfect on four extra points and made an equally stressful 29-yard field goal in the final two minutes to tie the game at 31.
Statesboro fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Messiah Bacon corralled the loose ball at the 13, setting the stage for Meza’s winning kick.
“Toughness is what it takes to be great and they did it tonight,” ECHS coach John Ford said. “Glory to God, for sure, and credit the kids for fighting and not giving up.”
The Rebels fell behind 31-21 early in the fourth quarter after two demoralizing turnovers resulted in touchdowns.
But ECHS responded. The Rebels outgained the Blue Devils 136-2 in total yardage in the fourth quarter. During one stretch of the second half, ECHS converted six straight third-down plays for first downs.
Quarterback Matthew Ford, who saw his interception and fumble returned for touchdowns on consecutive possessions, rebounded and completed 10 straight passes (93 yards) while directing scoring drives of 64 and 41 yards.
“That’s what it’s all about -- having a short memory,” John Ford said. “As the quarterback, all eyes are on you. He’s Steady Eddie. He practices well and brings that to the game. I’m so proud of him.”
Miquel Allen capped the first fourth-quarter scoring drive with catches of 6 and 15 yards before his 3-yard TD run pulled the Rebels to within three, 31-28, with 5:33 left.
“I just knew they needed me,” said Allen, who had six receptions for 57 yards and a score and 13 carries for 56 yards and a TD. “The defense got their feet under them and we kept driving. We fought all the way through and came out with the W.”
On the next possession, the ECHS defense stopped Statesboro on three plays and forced a punt.
And the Rebels marched to the Devils’ 11 -- 41 yards coming on Ford’s short pass to Xayvier Coppock -- to set up Meza’s tying field goal.
Ford completed 25-of-35 passes for 238 yards and set off fireworks with three TDs -- a 13-yarder to Allen, a 26-yarder to Timmy Brown and a 10-yarder to Ashley Thompson.
Coppock had two catches for 81 yards.
Statesboro’s sophomore quarterback Kamron Mikell ran for 241 yards and two touchdowns (73 and 52 yards) on 19 carries.
But the Blue Devils were penalized 14 times for 126 yards.
Statesboro (5-4, 3-2) must beat Glynn Academy in its regular-season finale Friday night to advance to the state playoffs.
ECHS, which won only three games last season, now eyes the region’s top seeding.
“It’s special (to be playing for the region championship),” Ford said. “Brunswick is a great team, no doubt. They have Power 5 (college) prospects and speed everywhere. But we’re going to go to work.”