COVINGTON, Ga. — With more at stake with a championship on the line, Cousins vs. Veterans Memorial Part Two had the same end result as the first time the two teams met earlier this season, but it didn’t come as easy.
The Cousins Middle School Cardinals pulled away from a halftime tie, defeating the Veterans Memorial Generals, 30-14 Saturday at Sharp Stadium to claim its first NewRock League championship since the late 1990s.
But it didn’t come without a little anxiety felt by Cousins coach, Patrick Jones.
“I mean, I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a time where, for a second, looking in the kids’ eyes and even some of our coaches where we weren’t thinking, ‘not again,’ while it was close,” Jones said. “Especially given what happened last year.”
Cousins narrowly lost the 2016 title game against Indian Creek after being down two scores, coming back and seemingly having the game in hand, only to let it slip in the end. Therefore, the season-long mantra was to finish what was left undone last year.
The Cardinals were armed with confidence after shutting out Veterans 26-0 last month in a special Friday Night Lights matchup, but the Generals squad that took the field Saturday was not the same one from the first time around, Jones said.
“Big time players do big time things in big games,” Jones said. “Mr. (Willie) Sheppard, III stepped up his game. He took it to another level and ran with his hair on fire. Those guys came out with a lot of confidence. And even though we scored first, they never backed down.”
It didn’t take the Cardinals long to put those first points on the board. Cousins scored on its first possession as Ramon Hernandez ran in from two yards out with 6:07 left in the 1st quarter. Hernandez's long run on the previous play set up the touchdown.
Then, Veterans Memorial promptly went three-and-out on its first possession, perhaps giving some fans the idea that this game would soon become an instant replay of the first. But Veterans’ defense bowed up, forcing a Cousins’ punt. And then the Generals’ offensive star began taking over.
A pair of punishing Sheppard runs set up a 20-yard scamper to the endzone at the 7:21 mark in the second quarter. Then Sheppard’s two-point conversion run gave Veterans an 8-7 lead, putting Cousins behind in a game for the first time all season.
That was enough to let Jones know that his team would be in a dogfight with Veterans this time around.
“What scared me a little was that all season we never trailed all year in a game,” Jones said. “We were always up seven of 14 points before our opponents even scored.
“But I told our guys all week that they’d be naive to sit here and think Veterans wasn’t going to come out swinging. They’re a great team and very deserving of being in the championship game. They gave us everything they had.”
Cousins evidently got the message, because on its next possession, Ramon Hernandez sprinted 50 yards down to Veterans 19-yard line, setting up quarterback Jevarra Martin’s scoring strike to Deonte Bruno on a pass play for a score that put Cousins back on top 14-8 with 5:57 left in the half.
Veterans promptly answered with a long pass completion of its own that came on a screen pass from quarterback Deterrius Clayton to William Nash, advancing the ball to the Cardinals’ 7-yard line. On the next play, Sheppard scored on a toss sweep left, but this time the two-point conversion failed, keeping the score knotted at 14 when halftime came.
Jones took the opportunity to light a fire under his team — particularly his defense — to start the second half with a sense of urgency.
“I told our guys, ‘Hey, it’s a boxing match,’ he said. “They’re gonna win a round or two and make some plays, but I told our guys and coaches as well, don’t waiver. We put the game plan in. Let’s stick to it and keep fighting as a family, not just a team.”
It paid off in the beginning of third quarter, as Cousins promptly forced Veterans into three plays and a punt. Hernandez then went to work with two long runs before catching a 6-yard toss for a score from Martin, with 2:41 left in the third quarter, making it 21-14 Cousins.
The Cardinals defense stepped up again a couple of series later, as it corralled Sheppard in his own end zone with Bruno making the finishing tackle for a safety early in the 4th quarter.
Then after receiving the ball on the ensuing kickoff, Hernandez effectively closed the door on Veterans’ championship hopes when scored on a sweep right play that went 25 yards, providing the final margin with 5:12 left in the game.
Veterans coach, Dante English had nothing but positive feelings about the way his team showed up for the fight on Saturday.
“Those boys fought hard against Cousins,” English said. “We just came up short. But I’m very proud of those guys.”
Afterward, the Cardinals players stormed the field and celebrated raucously after the trophy presentation. Players began sharing their appreciation with Jones which, he admitted, tugged at his heart strings a bit.
“You know, I’m really not like an emotional guy,” Jones said. “I don’t think anything is wrong with it. When you win something, it’s good to show emotions. But I had to hold it back some when we won and those kids came up to me thanking me for believing in them.”
Jones said the win against clearly the league’s next best team, the championship trophy and the feeling of getting over the hump that tripped his team up this time last year, was more satisfying, given the expectations others had about Cousins’ football program when he took the reigns two years ago.
“Ever since I came to Cousins, all I heard is it’s a dead program,” he said. “It’s a wash-over team. They’re not really any good. People were telling me I’d never win any games there. The last championship happened back in the late 90s when Mike Carver, God rest his soul, was coaching here.”
Jones said Carver passed away several years ago after succumbing to brain cancer. Jones said he couldn’t help but feel his spirit in the postgame celebration moments.
“Overtime I go into the store or somewhere, people tell me, ‘Mike would’ve been so proud of you guys,’” Jones said. “And I felt that. I guess I just felt like our kids were the forgotten ones. People doubted. But we knew after last year we wanted to get back and finish the drill. We waited 365 days for this, and it’s a good feeling.”
*Anthony Banks contributed to this report.