By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON — Friday night’s tense moment didn’t change the calm demeanor of South Effingham kicker Liam Rickman as he lined up for a game-winning field goal against visiting Wayne County.
“You can’t put yourself through that (mental) stress,” Rickman said. “I just thought God is going to get me through this. He always does.”
And with a perfect snap, a perfect hold and a little help from above, Rickman’s 38-yarder split the uprights as time expired to give the Mustangs a thrilling 33-30 victory over Wayne County.
SEHS (1-2) won its home opener after two 31-point setbacks on the road to Metter and Appling County to start the season.
The Mustangs stared at another potential blowout loss as the Yellow Jackets built a 23-7 third-quarter lead.
But, in a 180-degree turnaround, South, held to 77 total yards in the first half, found a way to score 26 points in the final 16 minutes.
“We played two really, really good programs and to play tonight and get a win, it meant everything in the world,” SEHS coach Nathan Clark said.
Rickman’s kick began a celebration like it was 2019 — a season when the Mustangs shot to a 6-1 record. Rickman, then a sophomore, booted a game-winning 24-yarder in overtime to stun highly regarded Jenkins.
The SEHS football program needed this win even more now after losing 15 of its last 16 games.
On Friday night, an emotional group on the sidelines let loose and stormed the field to mob Rickman, now a senior.
“And we’re not done yet,” said smiling senior Cameron Edwards, who finished with 111 rushing yards and a touchdown on 24 bruising carries.
Fans began a chant of “Liam, Liam.” Rickman ran to the stands and received a much-deserved hug and kiss.
“I’m so proud of Liam,” Clark said. “He has really put so much time and effort into becoming a really good kicker. He’s committed his life to kicking the football. That’s the No. 1 priority for him and it shows.”
Mustang perseverance showed up as well Friday night. SEHS was outgained 383-194 in total yards but remained undaunted. Jamari Fields’ 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown provided the Mustang’s only first-half points. Four of SEHS’s first five possessions ended in turnovers.
Clark said the team talked about staying positive.
“We talked about it — don’t think you’re going to lose, believe you can win,” Clark said. “I tell them all the time — good things happen to people who work hard. They kept fighting and believed.”
South’s belief was bolstered by Wayne County’s discombobulation within a two-minute span late in the third quarter. A fumble recovery at the 14 by sophomore Jeremiah Washington set up Edwards’ 3-yard TD run. Four plays later, sophomore safety Dominic Martell returned an interception 20 yards for another touchdown.
The Mustangs converted two-point conversions after each touchdown and the game was tied at 23.
On the next possession, Wayne methodically marched 80 yards on 10 plays, culminating on a 9-yard TD run by Tavoris Wilkins (his third TD of the game) to regain the lead, 30-23, with 10:14 left.
But South answered with a gritty 65-yard drive, converting a fourth-down play from its own 43-yard line and two more third-down plays.
The second third-down conversion — quarterback Kaden De Genaro 14-yard TD pass to Joell Laldee — knotted the game at 30 with 4:24 to play.
Aided by a holding call, SEHS defense stopped Wayne on three plays on the next possession — the first punt for either team in 15 straight possessions — and the Mustangs took over at their own 34 with about 3½ minutes to go.
More Yellow Jacket penalties followed and the visitors finished with 17 flags for 158 yards. A facemask call after a Wayne defender pulled down running back JaKeim Leeks at the 50 led to a 15-yard walkoff and an unsportsmanlike penalty doubled the sentence.
Suddenly, Rickman, who booted a 50-yard field goal against Appling a week earlier, was within game-winning distance at the 20. South ran three safe plays, positioning the ball in the middle of the field before calling timeout with three seconds left.
“Our program is still building,” Rickman said. “We’re getting better and better. That’s what it’s all about. We finally faced somebody comparable to us and we showed them.”