SANDERSVILLE, Ga. - Any hint of doubt that crept into the minds of the Washington County players and coaches was erased in one crucial defensive play.
With Mary Persons driving for the potential go-ahead touchdown late in the first half, Washington County's defense stopped the Bulldogs on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line and used the big play as a springboard to a big playoff victory.
"That was the turning point," junior two-way lineman Seth Watts said after Washington County's 31-12 victory in the second round of the Class AAA playoffs Friday night at the House of Pain.
"We realized we were able to step it up when we needed to," Watts said. "When something like that happens, the emotion is running high, and we were able to feed off that the rest of the game. That's how you play ball."
Washington County (11-1) advances to face Gainesville (12-0) on the road next week in the state quarterfinals. The winner moves on to a semifinal matchup at the Georgia Dome in two weeks.
After giving up a touchdown on the game's opening drive for only the second time this season, the Golden Hawks defense was in control.
On the series before the goal-line stand, Mary Persons had good field position inside the 30-yard line, but back-to-back big plays by 5-foot-9 senior linebacker Ray Moon dropped the Bulldogs for losses, including a 15-yard sack on third-and-10 from the 33.
Before Mary Persons (8-4) drove 70 yards for a touchdown by Terrance Lucear with less than two minutes remaining, Washington County held the Bulldogs to minus-1 yard of offense on their first four possessions of the second half.
Offensively, the Hawks relied on some big plays by quarterback Preston Smith and a balanced running game. Smith passed for 92 yards and ran for 23. Sophomore Tyrese Burnett rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns and Stacy Walls rushed for 89 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
But in the end, it was the Golden Hawks defense that had everyone buzzing.
"It was huge," Washington County coach Rick Tomberlin said. "I still think we would have won the game, but it would have been close."
Said Moon: "When we stopped them, that pretty much gave us momentum for the rest of the game. The coaches also showed us a couple of things at halftime, and we made the adjustments."
WASHINGTON COUNTY 31, MARY PERSONS 12