ATHENS - Despite having more total offensive yards, first downs, rushing yards, passing yards, completions, fewer fumbles, less punts and fewer penalties than Clarke Central, the Eagles watched their season come to an end Friday night at Billy Henderson Stadium, 14-7.
"Our defense played well enough for us to win," said Clarke Central head coach Leroy Ryals. "They did a heck of a job. Our kids did a good job just not letting them in the end zone."
Eastside's game plan was to keep Darrieon Robinson out of the end zone, and that's exactly what the Eagles (7-3 overall, 3-2 Region 8-AAAA, Sub-region B) did. However, the backbreaker was a 90-yard kickoff return by Clarke Central's Derrick Smith.
Despite Robinson breaking the century mark with 105 yards on 18 carries, it wasn't enough for the Eagles to beat the Gladiators (7-2-1, 5-1) and extend their season for at least one more week, falling just shy of making the Class AAAA playoffs.
"They've got nothing to be ashamed of," stated Eastside head coach Rick Hurst. "I'm extremely proud of our seniors and what they've meant to this program for the last three years. It's unfortunate they don't get to experience what I wanted them to, but it's a stepping stone. Hopefully, our underclassmen see now that you've got to play for 48 minutes and you've got to play smart."
After a scoreless opening quarter, the Gladiators struck first when backup quarterback Marques Coleman hit tight end Desmond Gantt for a 3-yard touchdown. Two plays earlier Coleman found a streaking Terrance Scruggs - who had 51 yards on 10 carries - over the middle for a 33-yard hookup.
"It was a little screen pass to Terrance," recalled Ryals. "We thought we could screen them because they were bringing a lot of pressure, and he executed it well."
The point-after by sophomore Adam Erickson had Clarke Central on top 7-0 with two minutes and 49 seconds left until halftime.
Eastside had a chance to tie the game entering the break; however, running back Johnny Norrington lost the handle on the Gladiator 11-yard line. The fumble was recovered by Clarke Central's Beau Evans.
"In big games like this you can't relax one bit," noted Hurst. "Unfortunately, those things have happened to us on too many occasions in those kinds of situations, and you can't do that against a good football team."
But the dagger in the heart for Eastside came 14 seconds into the third quarter when Smith returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for the touchdown. After the extra point by Erickson, the Gladiators led 14-0.
"Thank goodness we had that kickoff return," said Ryals. "We told our kids special teams would be huge for us, and we needed it."
In addition, Smith had three tackles and one interception.
"Our defense played the best that I could ask them to play," said Hurst. "Sometimes this stuff happens; we got down there and just couldn't convert. They made one more play than we made, and that kickoff return killed us."
The score would remain the same until 11:02 into the fourth quarter. After the Eagles put together a well-organized 14-play drive, it ended when quarterback Justin Wray threw a 12-yard touchdown strike to Norrington.
Larenzo Echols and Norrington combined for 80 yards on 14 carries.
The point-after by Yanrick Tinker had Eastside on the scoreboard 14-7 with 58 seconds left in the game.
Overall, Wray was 15-of-31 with one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 82 yards on 12 carries.
"We didn't give up," said Hurst. "They don't ever quit; they always play that way, and it's always going to give us a chance to win games. I was extremely proud that we (went) down that far with under a minute and had a chance to win the ballgame."
After what looked like a successful onside kick recovery by Eastside, it wasn't to be, and the Gladiators took a knee on the final two plays to end the game and extend their season.
Eastside's Broderick Alexander led all receivers with five catches for 48 yards. Andrico Bailey had four receptions for 47 yards.
Defensively, Clarke Central outside linebacker Terrance Fambro led all players with 7.5 tackles, including two sacks. Dominique Wilhite had 4.5 tackles, while Evans had four tackles including one fumble recovery.
Eastside's Maurice Gaither had a team-high 6.5 tackles. William White had 5.5 tackles, including one sack. Kaleb Pass had 4.5 tackles, including one fumble recovery.
According to Hurst, his senior leadership is what he will miss most from this year's team.
"They're just a good group to be around," said Hurst. "There's not one of them I wouldn't bring home with me; there's not one I wouldn't have in my house to take home and raise and that's the kind of kids they are. That's a testament to their parents and families. I love them to death, and I'm going to miss them a lot."