0

YOUR CROWN AWAITS, PART I: Deerfield-Windsor

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

Jordan Funderburk stood alone at the 40-yard line, tears streaming down his face, his heart broken. He was frozen there.

"I just couldn't move,'' Funderburk said. "I just stood there watching George Walton celebrate and going crazy. I was so frustrated, I yelled. I stayed there for 20, 30 minutes. I just looked down and started bawling. I bawled my eyes out.

"I told myself I would never forget that moment. I promised myself, I would work as hard as I needed to, and that we would work as hard as we could to get back to the state championship game. I promised myself it would not happen again. I mean, it was like it happened yesterday.''

It was a year ago.

And, yes Funderburk, a senior two-way lineman, kept his promise, and so did the other kids at Deerfield-Windsor, the ones who made this season so different, so unique -- and so memorable.

The Knights stepped out of that 42-24 state title loss to George Walton a year ago and began a march that has led them to tonight's GISA Class AAA State Championship game against Tattnall Square, which will show up at Webb Memorial Stadium for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff looking for its 11th state title.

Tattnall is the monster of GISA, the mountain to climb in this world of private school football, the stick by which all is measured -- the bully at the end of the block.

The Trojans will roll into Albany with an offensive and defensive line that will dwarf Deerfield, and an avalanche of deep, rich tradition that buries most teams.

If that's not enough, the message boards out of Macon have been full of braggadocio this week, echoing the obvious size difference in the two teams with sentiments that the much larger kids from Tattnall will have little trouble blowing Deerfield off the ball and right out of the stadium.

Deerfield's response?

"Well, every team we play is bigger than us,'' DWS senior running back/cornerback Davis Moore said. "We're used to it.''

And used to winning. This is the first Deerfield team in history to go 12-0, and a victory tonight will leave an unmatched legacy.

"It means nothing if we don't win this one,'' DWS coach Allen Lowe said. "It's about winning one ball game -- then we can celebrate.''

No one is talking about 13-0.

What they are talking about is Tattnall's defense -- big, stingy and unrelenting. To get here, Deerfield had to beat a much bigger and faster Mount de Sales team that brought the most explosive offense in GISA to Albany a week ago, and left town in tears after Trey Puckett kicked a 40-yard field goal as time expired to win, 30-27.

"This week, it's the polar opposite,'' Lowe said. "Last week, we were worried about how many points we would have to score to win. Tattnall is so good on defense. They're big and physical up front on both lines of scrimmage. This week it will be a battle of field position. I think both defenses will be tested.''

Don't forget, Deerfield's defense has been no slouch -- in fact, it's been sensational, allowing just 108 points in 12 games. Tattnall has allowed 103.

But this game isn't about numbers. As Lowe said: "We're not the biggest team, but we play bigger than we are. Somewhere along the line they had to believe this (state title game) is where they need to be. They have gotten better and better each week, and this bunch just believes good things are going to happen.''

It has been such a long and magical road to get to the game. You don't lose a running back like Tony Zenon, the best tailback in all of GISA who went on to Georgia Tech, and then just show up in the state title game the next year. No one thought Deerfield would make this kind of run.

"If you ask me who our stars are this year, it's hard to name them,'" said Lowe, whose program has never played Tattnall for a state title in football (hard to believe, right?) and are just 3-11-1 against the Trojans all-time. "It's been a great year. So many players have contributed. Look at last week and the field goal that won the game. The snapper, Trey Flynn, has to make a perfect snap. The holder, Banks Kinslow, has to do his job and Trey has to make that kick. It's been that way this year, everybody stepping in and everyone contributing.''

Deerfield's poster child would be a snapshot of those Thunder and Lightning kids who are the heart of this year's success. That's what Lowe calls his platoon of offensive linemen, who play in shifts. It's not as much a tag-team at Deerfield, but more like one kid passing the baton to the next, where Lowe has given a whole new meaning to the term teamwork.

The Thunder bunch consists of Caleb Smith, Parks Pace, Tanner Lowe, Patrick Forrestal and Harrison Houston, who was injured recently in a car accident and has been an inspiration to the team. The Lightning kids are Cooper Schumaker, J.D. Blackwell, Harrison Stadnik, Flynn and Michael Kelly, who plays with both groups.

Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz once said if you wanted to rob a bank and get away with it, become an offensive lineman, because they never get recognized. No one ever knows who they are.

At Deerfield, they know who they are.

It's that kind of group.

"One of the reasons we have won so much is because of the chemistry we have. This is the closest team we've had since I've been here,'' said Kinslow, one of three seniors who will be playing in his third consecutive state final.

Three state title games in a row with three completely different teams tells you everything you need to know about Lowe and his coaching staff -- more than just wizards on the blackboard, and motivators (and they are both), but men who care so deeply for their kids it shows in a million little ways. And the kids noticed.

"Our coaches do such a great job preparing us for the games, we never want to let them down,'' Moore said. "And we've been motivated all year by that loss last year. We've talked about it from time to time all year, and it really helped us last summer.''

Funderburk wouldn't let anyone forget. He wrote the score of the state title loss all over the weight room, and constantly reminded the players were they needed to be this year.

"There was some dust on the window, and Jordan wrote the score in the dust,'' Moore said. "So even if you looked out the window you saw the score. We all felt the same way. That loss last year really hurt and we all wanted to get back to the state title game.''

Moore, who gained more than 1,000 yards this season and has more than 200 yards rushing in the two playoff games, plus an interception for a TD in the playoffs, and Kinslow, who set a slew of school records as a quarterback, and has been a force as a safety and also punts for the Knights, and Rhett Cooper, DWS' emotional and physical leader on defense, a linebacker who seems to be everywhere he needs to be, all three will be playing in their third consecutive state title game.

But this one means a little more, because of last year's loss and because this season has come together the way the team literally came together.

"It's been special,'' Moore said. "Now we just (have) one more game. This year has been so special for us. After what we went through last year and the way this team has been so close all year and the way we worked so hard to get here.

"If we win, this one will be so little sweeter."