LEESBURG — Elijah Carnes saved his brightest football moment for a spot that counted.
One of the 41 seniors on the Lee County roster, Carnes made one big play Friday night against Coffee that sent his team on its way to a region championship.
Carnes’ 50-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter swung open what had been a six-point game. Coffee was unable to match the big score, and Lee County went on to win 23-7 and claim the GHSA Region 1-6A title, just the third region championship in program history.
“When I went back after he kicked it, it came straight to me and everything opened up,” Carnes said. “I just thank God for a great team. We stuck through, region champs.”
Lee County (9-1, 3-1 region) led the entire way. But that lead was nowhere near a solid one until Carnes broke free on his big return.
A couple of big pass plays set up a couple of early Lee County scores. Nikko Cruz’s 1-yard touchdown run and Austin Beaver’s 33-yard field goal gave Lee County a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, and Beaver added a 25-yarder five minutes into the second quarter.
Penalties, however, cost Lee County, much like they did in a loss two weeks earlier at Valdosta. A long touchdown late in the first quarter was taken off the board by an illegal block call, forcing the Trojans to settle for Beaver’s first field goal.
Coffee (6-3, 3-1) made it a six-point game just before halftime, with Dalrone Donaldson catching a 20-yard scoring pass from Wade Sumner.
What made Carnes’ game-turning touchdown stand up was a shutout defensive effort by Lee County in the second half, one that made some key stops.
“Coming out of halftime, everybody came out and executed,” defensive back Otis Reese said. “We did what the coaches said, and myself and a couple of other guys stepped up and showed leadership.”
Lee County’s first big stop came at the end of the third quarter, when the Trojans shut down Coffee on a fourth-down play at the Lee County 6.
Nearly four minutes into the final quarter, Coffee attempted a fake punt. Lee County, however, stopped the ball carrier short of the first-down marker.
After Lee County quarterback Jase Orndorff’s quick kick nailed one of the front end zone pylons on the fly for a touchback, Lee County’s defense went into shutdown mode. Led by a strong effort, both in coverage and in pressuring the quarterback, from Reese, Lee County put a halt to Coffee’s offensive production. That, in turn, led to Carnes’ touchdown return.
“That was amazing,” Reese said of the return. “My guy Elijah, that was a great punt return. People didn’t think he could return it, but he did it, and he shocked everybody out here.”
Coffee did make a big play in the ensuing series, getting the ball into Lee County territory. But a strip of a Coffee receiver led to a 75-yard fumble recovery by T.J. Harris, and Beaver made another field goal to effectively ice the game.
Lee County opens Class 6A playoff action next Friday at home against Richmond Hill, a team that went 7-2 during the regular season but lost its final two regular-season games to slip to the No. 4 seed. Coffee secured the No. 2 seed and will host Effingham County, while third-seeded Northside-Warner Robins will go to Brunswick and fourth-seeded Valdosta travels to Glynn Academy.