SAVANNAH — There have been countless great players in the history of high school football in Northeast Georgia. However, there have only been a handful of performances like the one Malaki Starks put on Friday night to send Jefferson to the Class 4A state championship game.
The junior two-way player ran for 320 yards on 30 carries with four touchdowns, threw a touchdown pass to Spencer Neese in the fourth quarter and capped off the night by intercepting Benedictine quarterback Holden Geriner in the end zone with the game on the line. The end result: a 42-35 Jefferson semifinal win over the Cadets at Memorial Stadium in Savannah.
The biggest play of the night and of the season for Jefferson came with just under five minutes to play. The Dragons faced a third and two deep in their own territory with the game tied. Starks kept it into the middle of the Benedictine defense and then spun away from multiple tacklers and sprinted down the sideline for what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.
"That run he made at the end will go down in Jefferson lore," head coach Gene Cathcart said after the game. "Just one of those special plays."
Jefferson advances now to the state championship game on Tuesday, December 29 against Marist in Atlanta.
"It feels amazing. We actually put a goal on the board a year ago to win the state championship and the fact that we're going to state now is amazing," Starks said.
Early on, it looked like a nightmare start for the Dragons, who had 11 first-half penalties that cost them a number of scoring opportunities. Benedictine led for most of the first half, but Jefferson continued to battle back.
The Cadets scored first on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Geriner to Za'Quan Bryan to take an early 7-0 lead and led 14-7 late in the first half. Jefferson came back to tie it up thanks to a blocked punt by Paxton Corkery with four minutes left in the half that set up a 21-yard touchdown run by Kolton Jones.
To start the second half, a pair of special teams disasters once again put the Dragons' backs against the wall. A muff on a short kickoff to open the third quarter gave Benedictine the ball on the Jefferson 27 and the Cadets cashed in immediately with a touchdown pass from Gerniner to Trent Broadnax. After Starks scored to tie the game, the Dragons' defense appeared to have a stop, but Benedictine dialed up a fake punt that worked to perfection, with James Moore ripping off a 30-yard run to set up a touchdown by Justin Thomas.
"You don't want to take anything away from Benedictine, but that was about as ugly of football as we've played all year," Cathcart said. "Penalties, didn't make plays, had trouble fielding kicks. I mean, it was just like a vomit-fest of football and that goes on me."
However, whenever Jefferson needed an answer, it always seemed to be number 24. Starks tied the game on a five-yard run late in the third quarter. Jefferson got the ball back and took their first lead of the night on the touchdown pass from Starks to Neese in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. It was only the second completed pass of the night for the Dragons.
"Sometimes, a player can get down on themselves and it can get in their head," Starks said after the game. "When you know you messed up, think about it for two seconds, let it go and move on to the next play."
Benedictine showed mettle of their own though, stringing together a drive that included several third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion. After a sack, Gerniner connected with Broadnax on a 46-yard pass on second-and-18 that set up the game-tying score with 6:03 to play.
Malaki Starks then wrote his name into the Jefferson football history books with the game-winning 65-yard run only a minute later.
Overall, Jefferson racked up 503 yards rushing with Kolton Jones contributing 75 yards and a touchdown and Jordan Perry chipping in 63 yards on seven carries. The Dragons outgained the Cadets on the game 550-353.
Now Jefferson will be pursuing what would be just their second state championship in program history.
"When we got the interception, it was an awfully sweet feeling," Cathcart said. "Excited to be going into Christmas break and still playing football. It's a pretty big deal."