Westover receiver Jaquri Shingles catches a touchdown pass Saturday night during the Class AAAA Patriots’ season opener against the Class AAAAAA Tift County Blue Devils. Westover prevailed, 33-29.
ALBANY — Jay Cunningham stood in the middle of the field, all smiles, all heart — his arms and hands stretched out from here to Atlanta to Miami.
He looked liked he was ready to take flight.
Cunningham and Westover had already taken off. The only question left was how high can these Patriots fly?
It felt like a playoff game on opening night for the Pats, who came back to beat Tift County, 33-29, when Cunningham blocked a punt and Brenton Wimberly ran it in from 12 yards out with four minutes left in the game.
“The coach called the play but I never even saw who blocked it,’’ Wimberly said. “I just saw the ball and thought, ‘Oh my God!’ Then I just scooped it up and scored. It felt great, great.’’
Wimberly, a junior, had never scored before. He spun around and shouted to the heavens by himself in the end zone. It looked like he didn’t want to leave.
It was a scene to start a season. Cunningham standing amid the chaos as the Westover kids danced on the sideline, shouting, screaming and taking it all in, and Wimberly pinching himself trying to believe he had just scored.
Suddenly, the heartbreak kids were breaking hearts.
After all, this was Westover, the kids who lost four games by a total of 20 points last year — the same kids who never could get a break. They got one Saturday and knew just what to do with it.
“I knew when we scored that touchdown that we were going to win the game,’’ Cunningham said. “I knew it! That play put us over the top.’’
Westover didn’t just win, the Patriots knocked off Class AAAAAA Tift, which was a big favorite against Class AAAA Westover — and the Pats won it down the stretch.
“We lost so many close games last year, it feels great to be on the other side of the fence,’’ Westover coach Octavia Jones said. “I’ve heard them say the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. Well, let me tell you, it’s greener.’’
Westover is the only GHSA team in Dougherty County to win on the opening weekend of the season, and it took two blocked punts, a couple of fumble recoveries and some grit at the end to stop a Tift team that looked like it was ready to run over Westover early.
Rashad Daniels gained almost every yard (63) on Tift’s first series and just kept coming all night. He went to halftime with 127 yards and finished the game with 225 yards on 33 carries, while the rest of Tift’s team rushed for a total of 53 yards and passed for 54. But when Daniels needed it most, Westover stopped him cold on Tift’s final drive.
Westover’s Trenton Thompson made one of the biggest plays of the game when he tackled Daniels for an 8-yard loss that forced Tift to punt inside its 10 with a little more than four minutes left, just before Cunningham’s blocked punt. And then on Tift’s final drive of the night, Otis Green stopped Daniels for a 1-yard loss at midfield on third down, forcing a fourth-and-six play for the Blue Devils.
They went to Daniels and Thompson, and Jakori Barron led the landslide of Westover defenders that stopped Daniels two yards short of the first down.
“The difference in this game is we didn’t give up,’’ Jones said. “We made plays when we had to make them at the end.’’
Herald Dynamite Dozen tailback Dalviness Greene, who finished with 80 yards on 14 carries, put the final touches on the night with a 41-yard run to the Tift 5-yard line, where Jones told his quarterback to just take a knee on two plays to end the game.
His quarterback was T.J. Cromer, who spends more time running up and down Highway 82 than any kid in Georgia. Cromer came from Tift County to Westover last year, went back to Tift at the end of the school year, and then came back to Westover last month.
Cromer, who completed 12-of-21 passes for 155 yards, wanted to win this one as badly as anyone and threw two first-half touchdown passes to get keep Westover close. Both were set up by big defensive plays. Kendrick Hurley blocked a punt at the Tift 25, and Cromer hit Jaquri Shingles with a 23-yard TD pass, and then Thompson recovered a fumble at the Tift 21 with 37 seconds left in the half.
Cromer connected with Jackie Childs for a 10-yard TD with 18 seconds left, but Tift’s Bryson Chaney blocked the extra point and Tift took a 14-13 lead to halftime. Tift scored twice in the first half on 1-yard runs by quarterback Ryan Wedgeworth.
Wimberly recovered a fumble on Tift’s first drive of the second half at the Tift 28, and T.J. Wester scored on a quarterback sneak with 8:27 left in the third to give Westover its first lead of the game, 19-14. Westover’s first three TDs came after big defensive plays set up short drives.
“We just made too many mistakes,’’ Tift County coach John Reid said. “They’re pretty good, but we had two blocked punts and lost two fumbles. They capitalized on our errors.’’
But Tift stormed right back, and Daniels provided most of the yards on the ensuing drive before Wedgeworth, who completed 3-of-8 passes for 54 yards, hit Beau Bergeron with a 15-yard TD pass as the lead started flip-flopping.
Cromer scored on a quarterback sneak for a 1-yard TD to complete an 85-yard drive with 2:28 left in the third to lift Westover back on top, 26-20, but Tift took advantage of a high snap out of the end zone for a safety that closed the gap to 26-22, and then drove 39 yards after the free kick and took its final lead (29-26) on an 8-yard TD run by Daniels with 8:02 left in the game.
It stayed that way until Cunningham slammed through the line and blocked the biggest punt of his life. He blocked a punt last year and scored on a blocked punt last year.
“This was the biggest one,’’ Cunningham said. “This is the biggest one of all. This game was big, beating a Class AAAAAA powerhouse. Coach kept telling us all week that the six As is just a name. We knew we could win.’’
How high can Westover fly?
“This sets the tone for the rest of the season,’’ Cunningham said. “We knew if we could beat this powerhouse that we can beat anybody.’’