Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- The ball sailed high into the night, rising above all the doubt, all the critics and the nonbelievers.

And when it cleared the crossbar and landed about 15 yards the other side of the goal post, Albany High landed with it -- right smack dab in the middle of a brand new era.

"It was unbelievable,'' Albany coach Felton Williams said.

Believe it: Albany High 16, Dougherty 14.

Right there at Hugh Mills Stadium, a punt away from the school itself, amid the rain and the team that The Albany Herald picked as the preseason No. 1 in Southwest Georgia, there was Albany High lifting its head up and shouting to the heavens.

Ironically, Daniel Castaneda kept his head down.

It was Castaneda, a senior who refused to kick last season because he didn't want to hurt his brother's feelings, booting a 32-yard field goal with 1.3 seconds on the clock to lift the Indians to their biggest victory in years.

"I had to keep my head down when I was kicking, so I never saw the ball go through,'' Castaneda said. "When I looked up all I saw was everybody jumping up and down. Then I shouted: 'Yes I made it,' and started jumping up and down. I jumped all the way to the other side of the field before I stopped.''

He never stopped to think how lucky he was to get a second chance. Castaneda had just missed a 37-yarder that sailed wide right, but got a reprieve when a Dougherty player ran into him after the kick. It was only five-yard running into the kicker penalty, but it gave Albany new life -- and Castaneda never doubted he would win the game.

"All the pressure was on me, but I had to keep it under control,'' he said. "I just had to stay cool and make the kick. Last year, my brother, Edsson, was the kicker and I didn't want to take his job. But this year, it's my time.''

The Indians went nuts, dancing all over the field while a group of players soaked Williams with a Gatorade shower. It rained all night Saturday, but that ice and Gatorade never felt better to Williams, who grew up across the street from Albany High and took over as the head coach after spending a year as the interim boss last season.

He lost eight starters who left with former coach Reggie Mitchell for Sherwood Christian and was forced to play freshmen and sophomores who suffered through an 0-10 season last year.

"That's over now,'' said Roscoe Byrd, a junior and two-way lineman who said last week that he was eating and sleeping and dreaming of what Albany would do this season. "We ate it. We slept it. We believe it.

"I told people there would be a change at Albany High. We are a different team. We are going to get more and more wins, just like this one.''

Roscoe's younger brother, sophomore quarterback Emmanul Byrd who completed 9-of-19 passes for 131 yards, completed his brother's thought.

"Everybody doubted us,'' he said. "Even in school, they didn't believe in us. They can believe now.''

It will be impossible not to.

Dougherty appeared ready to storm through the season, and was The Herald's preseason No. 1 team, but too many fumbles doomed the Trojans, who led, 6-0, 14-7 and finally 14-13, before Castaneda booted in the winner.

"We didn't play very good,'' said new Dougherty coach Jesse Hicks, who turned Baldwin High into a power before coming back to Albany, where he was a linebacker at Albany State. "We made too many mistakes. We had too many fumbles and too many penalties. I didn't agree with some of the officiating.

"We lost and it's my job to fix it. I'm glad my kids fought hard. Now we have to lick our wounds and get ready for Mitchell County next week. That's the only thing to do, pick yourself up. When we lose, it's my fault. Anything that is wrong with this program falls on me. I will fix it.''

No one had much offense early and Dougherty led, 6-0, on Marcus Williams' 5-yard run with 3:56 left in the first quarter, and after pinning back Albany, which started drives at its own 6, 5, 17 and 10 yard line in the first half, the Trojans were still up 6-0 at halftime.

Albany took a 7-6 lead on Byrd's quarterback sneak with 10:01 left in the third and Castaneda's PAT, but gave it back when Calvin Jackson couldn't hang on to a pitchout. He tried to pick the ball up and it bounced another 10 yards backward into the end zone, where Eugene "Biscuit" Watkins pounced on it for a touchdown and 13-7 lead. Williams scored on the two-point conversion run with 3:25 left in the third to make it 14-7. Williams finished with 52 yards on nine carries, and Ra'Shon Solomon led Dougherty with 101 yards on 23 carries.

But the Indians came back after a fumbled punt gave them the ball at Dougherty's 30 with 3:30 left. Byrd hit Larry Sanford with a 21-yard pass to the 4 yard line, and Jauron Brown scored on the next play with 2:55 left.

Williams decided to go for two instead of the tie, and Brown was stopped just short.

"I just wanted to go for the win,'' Williams said later. "I thought we had the momentum and our line was doing such a good job.

"I thought we would get it.''

Then, with Dougherty hanging onto a 14-13 lead, a high snap on a punt gave the Indians the ball at the Trojans' 31 with 1:53 left. Brown ran to the 22 and Byrd picked up a first down, but with no time outs, Albany was forced to try the field goal from the 20, and the 37-yarder sailed right.

Then came new life and the winning field goal for a program that literally felt like it had just won new life.

"When the ball went through, I was speechless,'' the AHS coach said. "I had such a strange feeling before the game. Juaron Brown went to his grandmothers funeral (Saturday) and last week (tight end) Jibri Jimmerson went to his grandmothers' funeral. I just kept thinking with everything we've been through that somebody was going to smile down on us.

"Even when there was three minutes left and they had the ball, I kept thinking if we just get one more chance," Williams added. "And when he made the field goal, I just smiled and thought:

'Somebody is smiling down on us.' "