ATLANTA - The Washington-Wilkes football team celebrated its victory Saturday as well as it played to earn it.
Years will pass, but the memories will remain golden from the team's first trip to the Georgia Dome since 2000. As time expired in an 18-14 thriller with Bowdon in the Class A state semifinals, Markeith Wylie flipped his lid.
"I threw my helmet up in the air as far as I could," he said.
Imagine a lineman fair-catching a punt.
"I didn't think before I did that," he said. "I just tore my helmet off and threw it into the sky. Man, does this feel good. Woo-oh-wee!"
Classmate Casey Nickels was mobbed on the ground by Tigers, Tiger friends and Tiger family. A final fling from Bowdon quarterback Jake Rollins into the end zone sailed incomplete after the Red Devils zoomed 63 yards in 65 seconds for that last gasp.
"I didn't see the ball in the air," Nickels said. "I was on the ground waiting to hear something. Then a roar came from our side. Man, was that a roar. I knew we had it when our side exploded with noise."
The memories flooded out like the big plays from Jareon Small's legs. Small's two second-half touchdowns and two-point conversion turned a 14-3 halftime deficit into postgame locker room nirvana.
It started when Wylie doused coach Russell Morgan with the last squeeze of his water bottle.
"We missed you with the water on the field," Wylie said.
Morgan expressed his pride. Pride in a team missing seven starters from the start of the season now getting ready to play at 7:30 p.m. Friday against neighbor and nemesis Lincoln County for the state title.
"Who wants to ride 18 miles with me next week?" Morgan told his team after that minishower.
Jerbar Moss, whose big plays included a sack and a fumble recovery, soon chimed in.
"Coach, you said if we won you were going to dance for us," Moss said. "You said you were going to tick for us."
And Morgan broke out his best electric groove to rapid approval.
"Coach was ticking like he was break dancing," Moss said. "He promised us last week if we won he'd dance. I forgot it, so I had to get him this time. He sent it out and brought it back with his dance. He brought it back for us."
Small rushed the Tigers back in the second half. He broke for a 69-yard touchdown run that more than doubled the 66 yards he had in the first half.
"I ran right with the play and saw a hole, so I cut it back," Small said. "I popped it free in the middle and got ahead of everyone. I know once I get ahead of the defense, nobody is going to catch me. I knew it was a score."
Small followed it up by catching a Clete Wilson pass on the two-point conversion. His game-winning score came two series later.
Small scored on a 45-yard screen pass with 8:14 left that was as open as it gets. The nearest defenders were 20 yards away, on the opposite hash of the field when he caught it.
Small had chipped a blitzer and settled in the flat, with Tyrece Ashmore and Nickels leading the way for him. He wasn't touched as he dove in for the touchdown.
"You can't describe how it feels to toss a pass to a guy so alone I didn't see a black jersey anywhere near him," Wilson said. "You feel like you're going to burst."
The triumph sets up a famed "378 War" like never before against Lincoln County.
"It will be the biggest game Washington-Wilkes has ever played in," Wilson said. "I don't think state championship games are built to stand what this one is going to be like. It'll be crazy."
Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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