There was one St. George’s tradition that got off-track on Friday.
After victories, the Gryphons jubilantly sing Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” also a chart topper last year by Darius Rucker. The team’s voices were silenced by a squad from near Music City USA, Battle Ground Academy, 28-7, in the Div. 2 Class A state playoff semifinal in Collierville.
“They asked if the seniors wanted to do it even though we didn’t win as their last Wagon Wheel,” said St. George’s football coach David Carter. “The seniors know the tradition it’s only played after a win and they said no.”
It will be the Wildcats (10-2) who advance to the Division 2 Class A BlueCross Bowl state championship game on Dec. 4 against Knoxville Webb, which has won three straight state titles. It will also be a rematch. Webb defeated BGA 34-28 on Oct. 10 with a last second touchdown.
“It’s sad, knowing it’s over. It hurts,” said St. George’s linebacker Lorenzo Cantu, a senior.
St. George’s sophomore quarterback Ben Glass said, “We didn’t come out and perform like we usually do. They have a good defense, good backs and are a good ball club. We watched film. We thought we were prepared for them. They came out ready to play and we didn’t.
“We obviously wanted to win the state championship,” he continued. “I hate to go out this way with the seniors but we will be back next year.”
After a 2-4 mid-season record, the Gryphons (7-5) were on a five-game winning streak entering the BGA game, motivated by their motto, “Sacrifice.”
“Learning how to sacrifice for the guys around you,” said Carter. “In some ways we learned what that meant and in some ways we probably have a lot more to learn but I hope if these guys can walk out and have friendships that have grown and can learn to sacrifice for each other, in the end they will be better men for it.”
St. George’s sophomore wide receiver/defensive back Jimbo Cayce learned what it meant to sacrifice for the team first hand. With 11:26 left in the game, Cayce was tackled by BGA defensive back Patrick Wells. Cayce sustained a clean break of the left tibia and fibula. He was taken by ambulance to Germantown Methodist Hospital where he had surgery.
“He is recovering nicely,” said Carter. “It’s one of those things that happened. It was a clean hit.”
Reaching out to Cayce, Wells spoke to him as he lay on a stretcher.
“I told him that he is a good player and that he was playing his game. I told him I would be praying for him and would keep him in my thoughts and hoped to hear from him soon,” said Wells. “He said thank you and he appreciates it and he would let me know how he was doing in a few weeks. With this game comes risks. It was a clean play. I hit him where I was supposed to. I think he would feel the same way if were me. You have to show respect for the other team and show respect for your fellow players. That is what I was trying to do.”
BGA last won a state football championship in 2003, the last time the Wildcats played for it.
“We had a lot of those guys come around from the 2003 team and we are excited for the opportunity,” said Roc Batten, in his fourth season as BGA head coach. “We are excited for the opportunity. These kids have been working hard. I’m really proud of these seniors. They were here the first year I arrived. We need to find a way to finish this thing.”
In the Wildcat’s locker room there is a ladder. After each victory, they put the name of the team they defeated on one tier of it. “It’s a step to the state championship. Each tier is just climbing its way up there. That has motivated us,” said quarterback Clayton Beathard, a junior who threw three touchdown passes and completed 13-of-22 passes for 219 yards. He also led the Wildcats in rushing yards with 57 on 12 carries.
“I’m proud of him. He played a great game. He showed a lot of fight and character which he has done all year long,” said Batten of Beathard, who scrambled out of near tackles. “He made plays with his feet and his arm tonight. When the pocket collapsed, he created some momentum himself. We just tried to be aggressive with an attacking offense and attacking defense. I thought our defense was stout but I thought our offense did a heck of a job. We moved the ball very effectively. We were able to convert on some third down plays. Some guys came up with some big plays, Ronald Cleveland (wide receiver, defensive back), Rieves Berry (wide receiver, defensive back), our offensive line gave him (Beathard) time to deliver the ball.
“We have been working on this game plan for awhile. We talk about it’s not about the other team it’s about us and how we are executing our offense and defense. That is our focus. There were no big surprises, either positive or negative. I’m just proud of the way we played.”
In scoring their touchdown with 2:44 left to play, the Gryphons “went back to what we have been doing a few weeks ago, running a wide-open spread offense,” said Carter. “I think that ultimately BGA had not prepared for any of that and so it was kind of our last wrinkle to hopefully get into the end zone. We had nothing left,” said Carter.
The Gryphons’ Division 2 Class A Mr. Football –Back finalist Chase Hayden scored on a 2-yard run. The drive was fueled by first down passes from Glass to McCarthy Robinson along with Hayden’s first down rushes. Graham Hawthorne’s PAT was the last point of the season. Glass finished with 6 of 15 completions for 54 yards.
A sophomore, Hayden finished with 134 yards on 28 carries. The Gryphons had a net 132 yards rushing on 42 carries.
BGA, who have never played the Gryphons before said Carter, rushed for 127 yards on 29 carries with Cleveland gaining 44 yards on two carries.
“I think I could have done better tonight,” said Hayden, who will learn on Dec. 1 in Murfreesboro if he is Mr. Football. “We didn’t play to the best of our ability.”
Carter was concerned that the Gryphons “gave them a half by making some crucial mistakes,” he said. “This is a war and we are at the bottom of the hill and we have to fight uphill to win the top.” That was Carter’s message to his team at halftime as they trailed 21-0.
“I think our guys understood the situation. I don’t know that they knew exactly how to respond. I think they responded the best way they knew how and we put ourselves in a great position with an interception at the beginning of the half. Going down into the end zone, we fumble the ball. That is too bad because some guys did some really, really good things that they are never gong to feel great about because we didn’t get the win.
“In the beginning our guys may have been, I don’t know if it was overly excited but every time that we started something that was good, we found a way to mess it up. We gave BGA enough time to capitalize on our mistakes.”
Starting the third quarter BGA was on its 29-yard line. Derek Dixon, St. George’s defensive back, intercepted Beathard at the 42. Glass completed an 18-yard pass to Corey Jones to the 24-yard line. Hayden then ran 10 yards to the 14 and then to the 11. At the 5, the Gryphons fumbled with 8:32 left.
Wells said the game’s turning point came in the first quarter. “We kept the steam on them.”
Directing the Wildcats’ no-huddle, spread offense, Beathard hit Marcus Cawthorne for a 24-yard pass that got the Wildcats to their 47-yard line. Beathard’s 17-yard pass to Trevor Auerbach went to the 1 but two penalties pushed BGA back to the 16. Beathard then threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Cleveland. Jarrett Bristol kicked his first of four PATs.
A 35-yard pass play from Beathard to Berry set up the Wildcats’ second touchdown. That pass got the Wildcats to the 50-yard line. A 19-yard run by Beathard went to the St. George’s 24. Facing fourth and 9 on the 23, Beathard hit Berry for a touchdown with 4:30 left in the second quarter. The Wildcats led 13-0. Bristol missed the PAT but a roughing-the-kicker penalty gave Bristol a second chance which he made.
The Wildcats’ lead ballooned to 21-0 on Beathard’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Cawthorne.
Beathard, who is also a finalist for Mr. Football, is “a playmaker” said Glass, who lead the Gryphons’ pro-style offense.
Said Carter, “He was a shiftier guy that maybe we had first envisioned. I think that he had a great game by keeping plays alive, by getting out of the pocket when he needed to get out of the pocket. Our defensive line didn’t do a great job of keeping him in the pocket and he capitalized on it.”
BGA had 346 yards total offense with Cawthorne the leading receiver with 85 yards on six catches. Berry had 67 yards on three catches while Auerbach had 51 yards on three receptions and Cleveland one for 16.
“As long as they get open they are getting the ball,” said Beathard. “It’s a team effort. It wasn’t just me. I can do as much as I can do. It’s the will to win.”
“If they say there is any such thing as a team win, that was it right there. We played great,” said Cleveland. “We had our plans. We knew we could win if we played fast like we do all year long. The defense played great. We moved the ball when we needed to on offense. We met on the sidelines. We said, ‘Hey, if the defense gets stops when we needed them, we knew that the offense would produce.’ We said we have got to come to play hard on defense and play physical which we did. We know they have got a good running back. The defense was stellar. I couldn’t ask any more from the other 10 guys on the field. It was a group effort.”
Cleveland was a member of the Wildcats’ 2014 state basketball championship team. “I have always wanted to get a football state championship,” he said. “The fact that we are here now seems like it all paid off.”
The Wildcats took a 28-0 lead when Cleveland scored on a 45-yard run with 6:17 left in the fourth quarter.
Beathard said that he entered the game with with a “lot of respect” for the Gryphons. They were a great team. They played really good. They were really a physical, athletic team.” Batten was concerned about the Gryphons’ speed and power.
St. George’s difficult start did begin to turn around said Carter after a loss to St. Benedict. “That was our rallying call. That was like let’s get it together and make sure that we finish the season off well,” he said. “The guys started off with a very tough schedule and have been able to work their way though it. They are better for it and have fought through a lot of adversity.
“People know a lot about what they see on film but what they don’t know is the kind of character and leadership that we get from our captains. Those guys are amazing and have pulled this team back together through some really tough times.” Clay Crensahw, Jacob Still and Dixon were captains said Carter.
Said Hayden, “We started off really slow at the beginning of the year but we came together and made it all the way to the semifinals. I felt like we persevered because we easily could have given up.”
Hayden said that while being a Mr. Football finalist “feels good,” he would exchange it to have made it to the state title game. He is the son of former University of Tennessee running back Aaron Hayden, who played from 1991-94. He played from 1995-98 with San Diego, Green Bay and Philadelphia.
To never give up and not take any games for granted and “play hard every game” is what his father would have encouraged him to do he said. “Dad has taught me technique at running back and to play hard and give it your best every game. I’ll let it (loss) be motivation for next season.”
The Gryphons are a legacy team. Cantu’s father Herkey Cantu was a guard for Ole Miss from 1988-92. While Lorenzo has not decided where he will play, he does leave the Gryphons with “experiences with teammates” that he will remember forever.
“I hope they consider me a role model and play with the attitude that I have and just remember me,” said Cantu, who led in tackles with nine, including three for lost yardage. Crenshaw had seven tackles and a sack while Glass had five tackles and a sack. The Gryphons operated from a 4-3 defense.
For BGA, Alex McKenzie led the multiple 3-4 defense with eight tackles and a sack while Cole Grosvenor had six tackles.
Eric Still, the father of Jacob Still, was a left guard at Tennessee from 1985-89. He was an All-American in 1989 and played for the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League of American Football. Jacob, who said it would be “cool” to play at UT, said he has learned from his father good positioning, where the play is going, “drive your guy and block through the whistle.”
A junior, Jacob said that his father would have told him that the team played hard against BGA.
Sophomore quarterback Ben Glass scrambles to pick up positive yardage. Glass finished with 6 of 15 completions for 54 yards.
“We couldn’t get it done when we needed to,” said Jacob, whose brother Ben Still is center on the Ole Miss team. “We kind of beat ourselves at the beginning. They (Wildcats) played smart on defense. They had good gap control, a good pass rush. They slanted a lot on their movements.
“We finished on a good note and had a great season. There is a great group of seniors. It’s tough that they had to go our like this but we did a lot of things good. We grew as a team. We grew as a unit. We have a lot of people on the offensive line coming back next year. We have got to hit the off-season hard and get back at it next year.”
Still hopes for a return to the state championship next year. St. George’s lost the championship game to Webb in 2013.
For Beathard, the ladder is “endless.” “The best thing (about St. George’s game), we came closer.”
Said Wells, “It’s the greatest feeling in the world. We were out here in the summer about six months ago working our tails off. We achieve the ultimate goal. That is going to the state championship.”
In his second season as head coach, Carter said that Hayden and Jones “stood out.” Jones was the leading receiver with three catches for 24 yards.
Jones, a sophomore, will be among the “young group” Carter said who will have to “replace some very important seniors.”