Hasta la vista, Valdosta: Catawba claims 37-34 OT victory

By Mike London, The Salisbury Post

VALDOSTA, Ga. — All season long, Catawba coach David Bennett has conducted a search for the perfect football game.

That search continues, because he definitely didn’t find it in Saturday afternoon’s Division II quarterfinal matchup at Valdosta State’s boisterous Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.

What Bennett did find in the middle of a terrific, turnover-plagued tussle on the turf of the nation’s top-ranked team was a perfectly wonderful 37-34 overtime win.
The Indians needed a TD-run by Tony Hawkins with eight seconds left to tie at the end of regulation, then they won in overtime on Matt Gross’ field goal.

Catawba won the overtime coin toss and elected to take the ball last. When it got possession, it knew all it needed was three points from Gross because its defense had already stopped the Blazers in their tracks.

“Our defense just said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’ ” said senior linebacker Darris Morris.

They did it. Catawba corner Ryan Norman nearly picked off a second-down pass. Reserves Maurice Simpkins and Steve Williams broke through to sack Valdosta’s record-setting QB Dusty Bonner on third down. On fourth down, Bonner threw incomplete into a crowd.

Bennett then put his faith in Gross, who confidently nailed the winner after three get-it-in-the-middle-of-the-field running plays.

Valdosta (12-1) calls it a season. South champion Catawba plays No. 2 Grand Valley State (11-0) next Saturday in a national semifinal.

Catawba’s gotten plenty of compliments during this extraordinary season. It got perhaps its most meaningful one to date from classy Valdosta coach Chris Hatcher.

“We’d like to build us a team like Catawba’s got,” said Hatcher. “We thought we had the best team in the country, but we fell right into the hands of Catawba football. That team just hangs around and hangs around until it finds a way to win the game.”

That summed up yesterday’s proceedings pretty well.

It was all Valdosta in the middle, but all seventh-ranked Catawba (11-1) early and late. Somehow, the Indians weathered 24 unanswered Blazer points and had a bit more left at the finish.

Catawba had two punts blocked, threw an interception, fumbled away a touchdown and was outgained by the potent Blazers 487 yards to 267. But Bennett has preached finding a way all season, and his youngsters found it once more.

This is not the scary DeVonte Peterson-Radell Lockhart-Mitch Ellis Indian team of last season. This is an edge-of-your-seat team that at times looks hopelessly beaten. But it never, ever gives up, even when common sense says it’s high-time to do just that.

“It was a game of mistakes,” admitted Bennett after the teams combined for seven turnovers and four blocked kicks. “But somehow we beat one heck of a football team.”

Valdosta wasn’t overrated, and its fabulous NFL-bound QB Bonner wasn’t either. He threw for 326 yards against a Tribe secondary that played loose, allowing lots of catches but few huge plays. Bonner upped his season TD total to an astounding 52, but he tasted his first defeat.

Valdosta took the opening kickoff and sailed right down the field, but Catawba got the first break when linebacker Shawn McBride recovered a fumble at the Indian 3. Euphoria turned to disaster for the Indians, though, when Danny Jenkins’ ensuing punt from the end zone was blocked for a safety.

Catawba got the next two scores. A 5-yard Valdosta punt led to a Rodney Wallace TD run, and an interception by Nick Hopper — the first of three thrown by Bonner — led to a Luke Samples-to-Ced Squirewell TD toss and a 14-2 edge.

That was the end of the good news for the Indians for quite a spell.

From late in the first quarter until late in the third, Catawba had a string of nine possessions — some with great field position — in which it had to punt eight times and committed a turnover. Meanwhile, Bonner was turning it on. The Blazers led 19-14 by halftime and maintained their momentum after the break, scoring again for a 26-14 lead.

“The biggest thing in that time was that we stayed calm,” said Bennett.

A blocked field goal by Morris with 7:43 left in the third finally reversed the Blazer avalanche.

Catawba then put together a drive that Samples finished with a surprise flip to tight end (and Georgia native) Mark Sintich to make the score 26-21.

Maurice Price made a great play on the ensuing kickoff, forcing a fumble, then emerging from a 10-person pileup with the ball. But then Samples was picked off, and momentum swung back to the Blazers.

It didn’t stay there. A second blocked field goal by Morris and a nice return by opportunistic Eddie Wall gave the ball back to the Indians.

Catawba then scored on a third-and-3 draw from the Valdosta 47 when bullish freshman back Wallace, who has rushed for more yards this season than any Indian in history, turned Bazemore-Hyder into his own private china shop.

“I started right, but saw all their big guys flowing that way and went back left,” said Wallace. “I got some great blocks by (receiver) Arnold Gaither. I’m campaigning for him to be an offensive lineman.”

Squirewell’s downfield blocks also helped Wallace stampede straight to the house. Now up 27-26, Catawba went for a 2-point conversion but failed.

Then Valdosta, playing like a champ in front of frenzied, football-crazy fans, stormed right back for a TD and a 2-point conversion with 3:31 left to play for a 34-27 lead.

But Catawba got a break on the Blazer kickoff when Nick Means was hit out of bounds. The Indians set up shop at their 49, and Samples easily negotiated much of the remaining yardage with a 26-yard connection to Means. Then Samples hit a leaping O.J. Lennon for first-and-goal at the Valdosta 2 with 1:25 remaining.

Two runs lost two yards, but on third-and-goal at the 4 with time running down, Valdosta was fooled when the ball went to Hawkins, who had carried only twice all day. He scooted around the left side untouched, and Catawba trailed 34-33.

Bennett then sent out Gross to tie the score, confident the Indians, who had tasted OT defeat at Carson-Newman in October, wouldn’t be denied a second time in an extra period.

And he was right.

Maybe Wallace, the squeaky-voiced battering ram, summed up the exhilarating, exhausting day best.

“Valdosta has a great team,” he said. “But they had not played anybody like us.”


NOTES: Jemonte Battle and Jamel Jackson had the other Indian interceptions. ... Bennett said the atmosphere was electric at Bazemore-Hyder. “You walk in here where Valdosta’s won all those high school championships (23 at last count) and it gives you chills,” he said. “Makes the hair stand up on your arms.” ... Wallace rushed for 94 yards, and Samples threw for 141. ... Bennett praised Valdosta’s facilities. “If our basketball coach saw the place you’ve got here, he’d just go crazy,” he said.


Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or .

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