JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — There was a level of elation on the Johns Creek sidelines that the program has perhaps never experienced with just under two minutes remaining in the Gladiators’ top-10 tilt with Valdosta Friday night.
Caleb Adegboyega had just nailed a 38-yard field goal with 1:43 remaining to give Johns Creek a 24-21 lead over the Wildcats, a program that has won over 900 games and 24 state titles.
But after 65 seconds more of game time, Johns Creek’s ecstasy was deflated with the Wildcats reeling of a 46-yard touchdown in the final minute of play.
Though there was still hope, and the Gladiators eventually moved the ball to the Valdosta 16-yard line, the Wildcats held on to deny Johns Creek its first trip to the quarterfinals.
“I’ve never been so proud of a group of guys who have come together,” Johns Creek head coach Matt Helmerich said. “This school, this community, it’s so danged diverse, and for these kids to come together, this was the most fun I’ve had coaching a team. They look forward to practice, they look forward to just being around each other. That was the toughest part about the loss, they couldn’t wait to come back to practice on Sunday and Monday.”
The No. 5-ranked Gladiators and No. 2-ranked Wildcats duked it out for four quarters, with both defenses putting on strong performances in a matchup that featured to top two scoring offenses in Class 6A.
“This was two really good teams, and it’s unfortunate we had to meet in round two, because I think we are two of the top three or four teams in the state,” Helmerich said. “We went toe to toe.”
Johns Creek led 14-7 late in the third quarter when the Gladiators defense stopped Valdosta just outside the red zone. Valdosta converted the field goal, but Johns Creek was called for a penalty. The Wildcats elected to go for the conversion, but a false start sent the kicking unit back onto the field, and again Valdosta converted. However, following another Johns Creek penalty on the play, the Wildcats again elected to go for the fourth-down conversion. There were no penalties on the next play, and the Wildcats scored from 7-yards out to tie the game at 14-14.
It was a gutsy decision that paid off later in the contest.
The Wildcats took their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter with a 62-yard touchdown run, their only true rushing success of the night.
Johns Creek responded in decisive fashion two minutes later, driving the field to set up a fantastic throw from Ben Whitlock to Justin Campbell in the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown.
After both squads exchanged possessions, Johns Creek drove 59 yards in seven plays, but were stalled at the 21-yard line to set up Adegboyega’s kick.
“That was a hell of a kick from Caleb from the hash, he’s got ice in his veins to be able to nail that,” Helmerich said.
Valdosta took over the ball with just under two minutes remaining, and after being held to eight yards on three plays, the Wildcats crossed midfield with a 12-yard reception. On the next play, the Wildcats threw a quick slant, and their receiver made a move around a defender and won a footrace to the end zone for the 46-yard, go-ahead score.
“Their quarterback and receivers were so good,” Helmerich said. “We knew we had to bring some pressure, and they just caught us in soft spot in the zone and (Valdosta wide receiver Javonte Sherman) is really fast.”
The Gladiators still had 66 seconds to try and flip the script on the Wildcats, and they moved the ball effectively and quickly down the field. Whitlock had throws of 14- and 22-yards to put the Gladiators in Valdosta territory.
With three seconds remaining, Whitlock had to go to the end zone. As the buzzer sounded, his pass intended for Campbell fell to the turf, but a pass interference call gave Johns Creek and untimed down from the Valdosta 16-yard line.
Whitlock threw the ball to the back corner of the end zone, but a Valdosta defender stepped in front of the pass for the game-ending interception.
Whitlock, playing in his final high school game, went 32-51 passing for 342 yards with two touchdowns.
Fellow senior Yong Min Lee had 101 yards receiving, with Justin Campbell grabbing two touchdowns with 92 yards receiving. Dalton Pearson had seven receptions for 74 yards.
After an interception on a tipped ball from the Gladiator’s Patrick Taylor on Valdosta’s opening drive, Whitlock’s first touchdown throw to Campbell gave the Gladiator’s an early lead. Valdosta responded with a 52-yard touchdown on a wide receiver screen late in the first quarter.
Taylor’s second interception of the game set up Cole Nelson with a 2-yard rushing touchdown for Johns Creek early in the third.
It was a heartbreaking result for Johns Creek, especially for its strong senior class, which captured three region titles and won the program’s first playoff game Nov. 15.
“The kids come into every game expected to win, and that was no different tonight,” Helmerich said. “They have changed the culture around here at Johns Creek, and we were expecting them to put together a top-notch football team, and this train is not stopping. We’re going to continue to get better and play in games like this year in and year out. Hopefully we can be on the other side of the score next time.”
The Gladiators compiled a 10-2 overall record this year and went 8-0 in Region 7-AAAAAA play for the second straight year.