COVINGTON, Ga — The Eastside Eagles’ football season came to an end after a hard fought battle in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs, where the Eagles ultimately made too many mistakes to overcome in a 21-16 home loss to Baldwin on Friday night.
Baldwin (7-4, 3-2) had an explosive first quarter after Eastside (8-3, 5-1) made a crucial miscue while trying to punt the ball. As Dalton Whitley geared up to punt the ball after the Eagles’ second drive, the snap sailed over Whitley’s head. There was a scramble and Baldwin recovered, leaving the Braves only 10 yards away from the end-zone.
That play seemed to be an omen of things to come for Eastside.
“(Baldwin) made more plays than we did,” said Eastside head coach Troy Hoff. “We had some opportunities that we didn’t take care of. We have to give them credit, they made plays when we didn’t. We knew we’d have our hands full. They’re a good football team. In the playoffs, when you give teams like that extra opportunities it’s hard to come back from that.”
On Baldwin’s first offensive play from scrimmage, Eastside’s Spurgeon Gaither was able to tackle the ball carrier for minimal yardage. But with 2:28 left in the first frame, Baldwin’s Zaahir Salahuddin put the first six points on the board after carrying the ball through the middle of Eastside’s defense, giving the Braves a 7-0 lead.
During the last drive of the opening quarter, Eastside’s Cobly Shivers caught a stunning 26-yard pass from Brayden Harper. Shivers catch could have been a touchdown, had it not been for Baldwin defenders that stopped Shivers at the 20-yard line.
Eastside’s drive spilled into the second quarter, where Kade Mote attempted a 34-yard field goal and succeeded, chopping the lead down to 7-3.
Gaither continued to show great defense in the second frame as he sacked Baldwin’s Torez Hicks.
The game became heated as Hicks advanced the ball to the 40-yard line. Although the play was over, a scuffle broke out between the two teams. This resulted in both an Eastside and Baldwin player being ejected, impacting both teams.
In the same Baldwin drive, the Braves’ offense completed a pass at the 15-yard line after it seemed Hicks had no options 26 yards away. Baldwin chipped away at Eastside’s defense until Salahuddin ran it in from five yards out with 3:33 left in the half. Braves’ kicker Lucas Webb brought the lead to 14-3.
Neither teams could hold onto the ball in the last two minutes of the first half. At the 2:02 mark, Eastside offense fumbled the ball and Baldwin was there to recover. On Baldwin’s next drive with 54 seconds left until halftime, Jamari Brown picked off a Baldwin pass, but Eastside couldn’t turn the takeaway into points.
Going into the second half, Brown had another recovery in him when he recovered a Baldwin fumble. This led to a Mote field goal at the 8:07 mark.
Mote got another chance for a field goal at the 3:32 in the third quarter. However, the attempt was blocked, allowing Christopher Hurst, Jr. to pick it up for a 50-yard return for a score.
Eastside fought back with a 64-yard drive that resulted in Jerry Mays catching the ball in the end-zone with 11 seconds left in the third. Mote tacked on an extra point, bringing Baldwin’s lead down to 21-13.
The fourth quarter brought on more of the same kind of drama for both teams.
After Eastside’s defense forced the Braves to punt, Brown returned the ball 62 yards for a touchdown at the 10:10 mark, but the big play was negated due to an Eastside penalty. The Eagles’ drive stalled out after three plays, and Mote booted 39-yard field goal with 7:51 left in the game for a 21-16 Baldwin lead.
“(Mote) had a great night,” said Hoff. “He’s had a great season. He did an excellent job on kickoffs. We didn’t give them many opportunities. With the field goals, he put us with a chance to win the game at the end. Very proud of him and the season.”
Eastside had a really good chance to win the game, as they had the last drive of the game, but the drive came to a scoreless end with 13 seconds remaining, advancing Baldwin to the next round and ending Eastside’s season at 8-3.
Despite the loss, Hoff had nothing but positive things to say about his team and program.
“These guys are fighters,” said Hoff. “We have a tremendous administration here. I have a great group of coaches. They do an unbelievable job of having our team prepared every week. These guys are warriors. They fight to the end. They come to practice and they work hard for us. I couldn’t be more proud of the group.”