Originally created 12/17/06

State championships sweeter than milestones for Devils' coach



LINCOLNTON, Ga. - Bomb-sniffing dogs.

Are you freaking kidding me!

Welcome to the smallest classification football state championship presented by the Georgia High School Association. Who knew - other than every other football program in Class A - that Lincoln and Clinch counties posed such a threat? Buddy Bufford Field had to be deemed secure from explosives before the gates could be opened for a prep football game.

The GHSA did its best to mimic neutrality by trying to inconvenience as many people as possible with its own staff running everything but the concessions on Lincoln County's home field. If the over-handed security before the game wasn't frustrating enough, the repeated clock operator errors during play certainly was.

In the end, however, it came down to two great football programs in front of a standing-room-only crowd that was every bit as intense as the rivalry matchup on this same swatch of turf a year ago against Washington-Wilkes.

Senior quarterback Brandon Barden's final major contribution to Lincoln County's overflowing trophy case was an all-state hard count that drew the nose tackle offside on fourth down and sealed a 21-14 victory over Clinch County and back-to-back state titles.

The clinching penalty sent the winningest head coach in Georgia history into uncharacteristic gyrations on the sideline. Immediately after the game, Larry Campbell playfully declared to the superintendent of schools that he was taking a month leave of absence to recover from his 11th state championship season.

"It used to be a little easier, to tell you the truth," Campbell said. "Now that everybody is doing the same things we do, it's a lot harder."

Saturday night proved to be a lot harder than it needed to be. With the state's stingiest defense allowing only 3 points per game coming in, Lincoln County had to feel comfortable jumping out to a 21-7 advantage at halftime.

But Clinch County isn't Class A's second most dominant program for nothing. The Panthers possess four state championships of their own, and every one of them came after beating Lincoln County in the postseason. That Clinch County was the only school in existence with a winning record against Campbell (4-3) in more than one meeting added an extra layer of spice to the proceedings.

"And they beat us pretty bad in the Georgia Dome in 2004," Barden said.

Clinch County coach Jim Dickerson deserves an extra helping of kudos for benching his senior starting quarterback Shane Burns for the title game for "behavior unbecoming of what we expect out of a student-athlete." After years of seeing the entitled behavior of many student athletes lower the expectations just above the shoestrings, it's refreshing on any occasion when you find a coach willing to raise the bar on principle.

Despite that and traveling 227 miles to face the state's best defense, all-time coaching leader and defending Class A champs, Clinch County didn't let a 14-point deficit late in the fourth quarter prevent them from providing some drama. Reserve quarterback Jaquan Wrice completed four passes on a 70-yard march to draw the Panthers within a touchdown of inducing the most idiotic ruling in the GHSA's arsenal - the title tie. Clinch County had to share its last trophy with Hawkinsville two years ago since for some incompetent reason the GHSA deems overtime unworthy in a championship game.

So Lincoln County had a little work to do to avoid the possibility of letting the school's 14th championship slip through its fingers like the potential touchdown pass that might have sealed it in the closing seconds of the first half.

After Rontae Norman covered an on-sides kick to atone for allowing Clinch County's Dexter Reeves to score, it was up to the offense to get a first down. Facing fourth down and less than a yard at the Clinch County 44, Barden made his best move of the game with 2:02 remaining.

"I was surprised they jumped," said Barden, who would have called a timeout if the Panthers hadn't bit on his head fake.

Campbell told his players they were going to go for it anyway, but the coach with 403 career victories isn't so sure. Lincoln County got this far trusting his defense, and trying to pin the Panthers down with a punt would have been the more prudent call.

"I think they really felt like we were going for it with a sneak," Campbell said. "I probably would have had to punt the football."

It never came down to that. After rushing for one touchdown and throwing for another, Barden ended the game on his knee as the clock ran out.

"This one was big," said Barden, whose next move will be to head off to college at Virginia Tech on Jan. 14. "It's a lot harder to go back to back than to win the first one."

Campbell understands that. That his players and staff brought another state title to the faithful of Lincolnton was far more rewarding to him than whatever milestones he sets along the way.

"Winning 400 games doesn't touch a state championship," Campbell said. "They get more special the older I get."

And since the GHSA's dogs prevented Campbell from dropping any bombshells like a retirement announcement when it was all over, maybe we'll see if a new cast of Red Devils can secure a three-peat in 2007.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.