COVINGTON, Ga. — When next Saturday’s NewRock Middle School football championship game rolls around, it will feature a pair of teams already familiar with Sharp Stadium this season.
Both Veterans Memorial and Cousins middle schools punched their tickets to the title game with semifinals wins over Indian Creek and Liberty, respectively.
And while Cousins’ victory — a 37-16 triumph — was fairly convincing, Veterans and defending NewRock champion, Indian Creek went down to the wire, with the Generals pulling out a 14-6 victory to punch their ticket for a championship rematch with Cousins.
“I’m just so very proud of our kids,” said Veterans coach, Dante English. “They’ve worked all summer and all season for it. Through the hard work, the disagreements, them getting mad with coaches. But now it’s all paid off, and we’re here.”
The star of the game was Veterans’ Willie Sheppard, III. After a scoreless first half, Sheppard put Veterans on the board first, with a 10-yard touchdown run that climaxed a short drive that began after Olan Robinson recovered an Indian Creek fumble. The score, followed by a failed two-point conversion, gave Veterans a 6-0 lead at the 2:36 mark of the third quarter.
Veterans would strike again early in the fourth quarter, and it would be Sheppard, once again, doing the damage, as he ripped off a 45-yard touchdown run while breaking several tackles. Then, in an impressive display of strength, he bullied his way into the end zone on a two-point conversion that saw him trucking an Indian Creek player.
The sequence of plays gave Veterans a 14-0 lead at the six-minute mark of the final quarter, and left English gushing about his eighth grade star.
“Willie Sheppard is just a kid that’s on another level,” English said. “I’ve been coaching middle school football for five years now, and I’ve never seen a player like him. He played his heart out tonight and that’s just what we’ve come to expect from him.”
Sheppard’s two scores seemed to be enough to put Indian Creek away, especially when, on the ensuing kick return, an Indian Creek ball carrier was stripped of the football after a long run back. At that point, it seemed like a Veterans win was a foregone conclusion.
That changed, however, when Indian Creek connected on a big pass play that resulted in a circus style, bobbling catch-and-run for a 60-yard score that cut the lead to 14-6 with 4:19 to play.
Both teams would trade scoreless possessions, until Indian Creek started a promising drive that got into Veterans territory with under a minute to go. But the drive — and essentially, the game — ended when Montarius Reed picked off an Indian Creek pass with 43 seconds left in the game.
Afterward, English told his team that he was elated with the way they battled.
“Sometimes you’ve got games like this where you just can’t pull away and it becomes a fight,” English said. “But you guys kept battling and fought through adversity, and I’m proud of the way you did it.”
Veterans (7-1) will now turn its attention to Cousins (8-0). The Cardinals blanked Veterans, 26-0 in the two teams’ Friday Night Lights matchup at Sharp Stadium. And knowing that they’ll return to Sharp to meet each other again, English says he and his team wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Ultimately it really doesn’t matter who we play, but I said before that I thought these two teams would meet again,” English said. “I’ve got tremendous respect for the Cousins program. They’ve got some great coaches and great athletes there. But I’m confident in our guys as well. I think you’ll see a different team out there at Sharp this time around.”