CLEVELAND — Despite being ranked No. 5 in Class AA and considered a heavy-favorite Friday night against a resurgent but still rebuilding White County team, Rabun County coach Lee Shaw is grateful that not every game follows the so-called experts.
Shaw’s Wildcats were pushed to the limit for 41 minutes before using a 21-point barrage in a three-minute span to eventually take a tougher-than-it-appeared 49-26 win over the Warriors at White County Stadium.
“We have a tough schedule with teams like Stephens County and White County to get us prepared for region and beyond,” Shaw said. “We knew (White County) would play with confidence and they gave us everything they had. But I was proud of how we responded to adversity during the game and especially when they got close in the third quarter.”
Kaleb Crane’s electrifying 86-yard run on 3rd-and-14 pulled White County within 28-26 with just 26 seconds left in the third quarter. The Warriors’ Kurtis Havlen then intercepted Bailey Fisher in the end zone on the following drive and White County had the ball with just under 11 minutes left and a chance for the go-ahead score.
However, two weak passes and Crane getting stopped on third down forced a punt and the Warriors would get just one first down the rest of the way.
On the ensuing drive, White County appeared to have the Wildcats stopped as a sack and two penalties forced a 3rd-and-17 from the Rabun 38. But senior quarterback Bailey Fisher found Cole Keener on a reverse field screen pass and Keener found a seam and raced 62-yard for a touchdown and a 35-26 lead with 6:54 left.
Three plays and just 23 seconds later, Austin Jones stepped in front of a J. Ben Haynes pass and raced 25-yards for an interception return for a touchdown and a 42-26 lead to put the game out of reach.
After stopping the Warriors on downs, A.J. Wheeler used a 37-yard run to the White County 4 and Fisher found Keener for a 5-yard touchdown for the final points with just 3:47 left.
“We talked at halftime about overcoming adversity and just do what we do,” Shaw said. “We made a couple plays in the fourth quarter and that was the difference.”
White County coach Tim Cokely said his group, especially on defense, “played a whale of a game.” The offense had chances in the second half but penalties and missed passes cut drives short.
“The defense played hard and did a good job most of the night. I was real pleased for most of the game with how they stood up to them,” he said. “But on offense, we didn’t just shoot ourselves in the foot, we blew our leg off at times. But we’ll learn and get better. That was a good football team right there.”
Early on the two offenses put on the show fans were expecting.
Rabun County took the opening kickoff 80 yards in 13-plays capped by a 3-yard touchdown run from Fisher for a 7-0 lead. The key plays were a 17-yard keeper by Fisher on third down and then a 29-yard strike from Fisher to Cole Keener to put the Wildcats at the White County 9.
The Warriors answered right back with their own 80-yard drive with freshman quarterback Haynes connecting with Ty Ulrich on a 30-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with 3:38 left in the first quarter. Haynes had found Talmadge Sampson for another 30-yard pass earlier to get them in Rabun County territory.
But the Wildcats needed just one play reclaim the lead when Fisher found Jones on a wide receiver screen and Jones outraced the entire White County defense for a 67-yard touchdown.
However, the Warriors answered that with a quick 3-play, 79-yard drive with Crane scoring on a 2-yard run to tie the game again at 14-14 one play after Haynes and Cody VerSluis connected on a 65-yard pass.
Then, the defenses took control. White County forced two Rabun County punts sandwiched around the Wildcats stripping Haynes for a fumble. But the Warriors held again.
The Wildcats special teams had the key sequence of the half when Justin Wilkes blocked a Brett Bardenwerper punt setting up a 4-yard touchdown run by Fisher three plays later for a 21-14 Rabun County lead with 5:21 left in the half.
The teams then traded punts again before White County closed out the half with a 32-yard Bardenweper field goal to trail just 21-17. The key play was a 44-yard pass from Haynes to Austin Rowland to the Wildcats 20.
White County opened the second half driving to the Rabun 21 but the drive stalled and Bardenwerper added a 38-yard field goal to cut it to 21-20.
On the Wildcats first drive of the third quarter Fisher scored on a 3-yard run to cap a 58-yard drive for a 28-20 lead.
Rabun looked poised to seize control forcing a White County punt, and Fisher connected with Braxton Hicks for a 52-yard bomb to the Warriors 2. But a 15-yard blindside block penalty pushed the Wildcats back to the Warriors 20 and a Andrew Barnes 35-yard field was low and short to keep it a one-score game with 1:59 left in the third quarter.
The Wildcats again looked ready to take control forcing a 3rd-and-14 for the Warriors at the White County 16. Crane’s big run cut the lead again but he was stopped on a run for the 2-point try to make it 28-26 with 26 seconds left in the third quarter.
White County would get just one first down the rest of the way as the Wildcats finally took control in the fourth quarter.
Rabun Co.....14....7....7....21 -- 49
White Co......14....3....9......0 -- 26
R -- Fisher 3 run (Barnes kick) 7-0, 7:04
W -- Ulrich 30 pass from Haynes (Bardenwerper kick) 7-7, 3:38
R -- Jones 67 pass from Fisher (Barnes kick) 14-7, 3:18
W -- Crane 1 run (Bardenwerper kick) 14-14, 1:07
R -- Fisher 4 run (Barnes kick) 21-14, 5:21
W -- Bardenwerper 32 FG 21-17, 0:00
W -- Bardenwerper 38 FG 21-20, 7:42
R -- Fisher 2 run (Barnes kick) 28-20, 4:53
W -- Crane 86 run (run failed) 28-26, 0:26
R -- Keener 62 pass from Fisher (Barnes kick) 35-26, 6:54
R -- Jones 25 INT return (Barnes kick) 42-26, 6:31
R -- Keener 5 pass from Fisher (Barnes kick) 49-26, 3:47