The Deerfield football team storms onto the field for its first game of the 2013 season Friday night at Webb Memorial Stadium. The Knights rallied to beat SGA, 21-7. (Tim Darden/Special to The Herald)
ALBANY – It’s now been nine days since the Deerfield-Windsor football team watched with fright as star running back/defensive end Matthew Fox left the field during practice, blood pouring from his hand.
On Friday during the Knights’ 2013 season opener against Southwest Georgia Academy, he absorbed his first contact since that injury, which required 14 stitches.
And it messed with his head.
“I wasn’t feeling right. I was letting the injury affect how I played, how I ran and how I attacked the holes,” said the 6-1, 200-pound bruiser, who started the game with a long run on the very first play – steamrolling right over several SGA defenders — but then watched the first half unravel in front of his eyes by being virtually shut down by the smaller Warriors’ front. He also fumbled twice.
“(The injury) was controlling my mind. So at halftime, I talked to my dad and my coach and they just told me let it go and not think about it,” Fox continued. “So that’s what I did. I put it out of my mind.”
It only took one play.
With the Warriors surprisingly ahead, 7-0, SGA opened the second half with the ball, looking to step on the throats of a second defending state champ in as many weeks. The Warriors came to Albany on Friday having already beaten reigning 1A Alabama state titlest Ashford Academy a week earlier, and now Class AA SGA had AAA state champ Deerfield in its sights.
“That wasn’t going to happen,” Fox said after the game. “(It would have been) awful (if we lost).”
With that in mind, two plays into the third quarter, the entire complexity of the contest changed. First, running back Perry Bridges fumbled the ball during a halfback dive up the middle — a play Fox was in on — and Deerfield recovered on SGA’s 32-yard line. Then less than a minute later, you could’ve bet the house on who was getting the ball on the first play.
“We needed that,” was the understatement made by Deerfield first-year starting quarterback Tripp Presley about Fox, who took the handoff from Presley and went almost untouched into the SGA end zone to tie the game. “He’s good. He’s one of our leaders. That was huge.”
The crowd at Webb Memorial Stadium, which trudged and groaned their way to the concession stands at halftime after watching their team fumble and stumble through the first 24 minutes, suddenly came alive. Cheerleaders somersaulted across the sidelines. Every Deerfield player was up off the bench. And countless helmet-pats and atta-boys greeted Fox when he returned from the end zone.
Deerfield coach Allen Lowe — who spent much of that frustrating first half yelling at the officials, his players and anyone within 10 feet of him — didn’t exactly smile when Fox’s TD tied the game. But it certainly straightened out his frown.
“I told them at halftime that we needed to stay the course, do what we’ve been doing and just eliminate the mistakes and penalties that hurt us in the first half,” Lowe said he told his guys. “And I said we had to pin them deep to start the game and make something happen. And they did. First it was the defense, then it was Fox.”
Fox, however, didn’t want much credit for his game-changing play.
“That was my (offensive) line right there,” said Fox, who finished as the game’s leading rusher with 107 yards on 15 carries. “They cleared a huge hole and I just ran through it. Can’t take much credit for that run.”
Lowe did credit Fox – not with running for Deerfield’s first touchdown of 2013 – but for putting the injury out of his mind and picking up his team, which got a second score from its senior from 3 yards out on their very next possession to go up 14-7.
“Was it bothering him? Yeah, it was. But that’s cause it hurt and he hadn’t played a lick of football in eight days,” said the coach, whose teams have lost just two season openers during his 13 years as head coach at DWS. “He knows he’s going to have to do a lot more this year than ever before, and I think he responded (to that challenge). I thought he ran the ball real well.”
The opposite was true for SGA’s Bridges, who piled up 181 yards and three scores in last week’s season-opening win against Ashford but was held to just 36 yards and no scores Friday. SGA’s only TD – a 21-yard pass in the second quarter that seemingly came out of nowhere after the Warriors appeared to only be interested in running the ball early on – took place when sophomore QB Quinn LaGuardia found senior WR Teel Massey, who made a nice over-the-shoulder catch. The play looked flukely, but it was anything but, said both LaGuardia and Massey.
“He told me right before that play, ‘Just watch me, I’ll be open,’ ” LaGuardia recalled. “And he was.”
Added Massey: “I saw something on their defense – I’m not saying what – but I saw something. The throw was right where I wanted it, and I was able to make the catch.”
SGA was forced to revert to the passing game, something the Warriors used little during last week’s steady downpour of rain in the season opener, when Deerfield’s defense showed early on that they were bigger, faster and stronger as a whole than SGA. Massey claimed after the game he felt the Warriors were in better shape than the Knights, but they simply got worn down by Deerfield’s depth. That’s not to say SGA wasn’t impressed by Deerfield’s ‘D.’
“They’ve got a great defense, don’t get me wrong,” said Massey, who then lamented that conditioning and numbers decided the game, leaving the SGA players — almost all of whom play both ways — spent in the second half. Still, excuse or not, Massey — one of SGA’s senior leader — said not finishing strong was unacceptable.
“It’s the whole game that matters. We can’t play half a game or this is what happens,” he added. “The bottom line is we got worn out. I still think we were in better shape than them — but they got 60-something players and we don’t. So there ya go.”
Warriors first-year coach Brent Miller, who admitted he’s terrible at post-game speeches after losses, still gave an impassioned one after the game that seemed to lift the spirit of his team, which will next host Windsor.
“When the scoreboard’s off, it’s over. We leave it right here on the field. All we can do now is correct what we did wrong. There’s no sense in thinking about that score after we get on the bus and go home to Damascus,” Miller said, his voice raspy from yelling all night. “We probably came in a three-touchdown underdog to these guys – this was the Class AAA state champs – and you hung in there. If it wasn’t for a few mistakes, we might have won this game.”
Miller then gathered his team even closer and finished with one final thought.
“I love you guys and I’m proud of you,” he said. “Now let’s go get ‘em next week.”
NOTES: Deerfield hosts state power North Florida Christian next week. The schools have played three straight years with NFC winning all three meetings … Lowe wasn’t just impressed by Fox on Friday, singling out one of Deerfield’s other RBs, Alec Miller, as having a solid night in his first start on varsity. “I thought Alec played really well, ran hard,” said Lowe of the senior, who finished the game with six carries for 25 yards — not including a 25-yarder that got called back because of a penalty — and he also added two catches for 39 yards. “It will be a good (complement) to Fox if he can keep that up.” … SGA could barely move the ball in the second half — to the tune of 47 total yards of offense — and only made it in Deerfield territory once. And even then, that drive was pushed back by three costly penalties — a hold, a personal foul and a false start — ending any threat the Warriors hoped to pose. … DWS junior Chris Boswell added Deerfield’s final TD with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, breaking four tackles to turn what looked like a busted play into a 12-yard TD run and a 21-7 lead … Knights senior kicker Harry Vildibill, who wears bright yellow shoes you could see from Dawson Road, heard the crowd chanting his nickname, “Chartreuse,” all night at Webb Memorial Stadium. The shoes aren’t just limited to the playing field — word is Vildibill wears them every day to school, as well … Presley left the game in the fourth quarter after appearing to suffer from cramps. He did not return and was replaced by backup QB Tyler Lowe, who is DWS head coach Allen Lowe’s son. Presley said after the game he was fine and the coaches decided to hold him out for the rest of the game since Deerfield was firmly in control at that point, up 21-7 … SGA leading tackler Thomas Vines had another big game with 8 tackles and a 39-yard catch on offense … SGA will get starting running back Will Warren back next week after Warren was held out of the first two games (coach’s decision). Miller has declined to say why Warren isn’t playing … The Deerfield radio crew broadcasted their first of many games Friday. They can be heard — home or away — all season on 107.7 FM.