By CHRISTOPHER LAWLOR
LEESBURG, Ga. – The St. Frances Academy Panthers showed no signs of extended time off on Saturday night.
The Panthers, who entered the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series, without a competitive game in 36 days, tallied the final 29 points and cruised to a 43-14 victory over previously undefeated Lee County (Leesburg, Ga.) at Trojan Field.
With the game knotted at 14 midway though the second quarter, quarterback John Griffith threaded a 17-yard touchdown strike to junior wide receiver Traeshon Holden for a 20-14 edge and the two time reigning Georgia Class AAAAAA champions were on their way to their first loss of the campaign.
SFA, who did not play for a state championship and cobbled together an independent schedule, went 10-0, while Lee County had another stellar season at 15-1.
The Trojans were the second team since 2010, along with nearby Colquitt County (Moultrie, GA) to win back-to-back GHSA state titles from southwest Georgia. The Region 1-AAAAAA schedule included wins over Northside (Warner Robins), Valdosta, Houston County and Coffee. That 10-0 run in the regular season gave way to another title-conquest run climaxed by a 14-0 victory over regional rival Northside, 14-0, on Dec. 11 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, St. Frances filled out its schedule with teams from Virginia, Ontario (Canada), New York, Connecticut, Maryland and received a forfeit win over a school from Columbus, OH. The Panthers outscored opponents, 477-32, but did not play a competitive game since Nov. 16.
That’s why SFA’s dominance of a Georgia state champion was a display of pure energy and resiliency.
Lee County made halftime adjustments and early in the third quarter they had SFA pinned deep in their territory. That’s when junior running back Blake Corum made it 27-14 and essentially put away the hometown Trojans.
Facing third-and-12 from its own 13, Corum took a read-option handoff from the spread offense and sped 87 yards untouched for a 13-point lead with 9:40 to go. Corum’s second scoring run of the game silenced the sold-out home crowd and appeared to douse their festive mood, dousing the festive mood.
Corum was named the game’s Co-Most Valuable Player after carrying 17 times for 210 yards and two scores, averaging 12.4 yards per rush attempt. That’s quite a night!
With 5:34 left in the contest, thickly built running back Joachim Bangda rumbled 9 yards for the final TD of the game, barreling over Lee County defenders and Baltimore squad clinched the win on a ESPNU national television audience.
The Panthers, under co-head coaches Hank Russell and Biff Poggi, will enter the 2019 regular season with a 22-game win streak and a strong chance to play in the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series for a third consecutive year.
In 15 games prior to Saturday’s GEICO Bowl Series, Lee County’s narrowest margin of victory was 14 points in the state final while SFA’s was 35.
SFA might have been daunted by allowing seven points—seven points—the most they have yielded all season in any game. It was a high-wattage crowd stood and cheered as their Lee County heroes and two-time Georgia state champions charged onto the field and the hometown pilgrims were aloud.
This was small-town Southern schoolboy football at its absolute pinnacle.
It was the game latest football game played the southern Georgia recent memory. For Lee County this game was a bonus. The Trojans were just over a week from playing in the big house or Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they won. The Trojans returned home as two-time champions and playing for state pride.
It was a peach of a game! Well, that’s if you uniform colors were Black and Yellow from Baltimore, MD.
When the game started it was a Christmaslike atmosphere here in southwestern Georgia on a cool, high-charged evening that welcomed two championship programs.
What was most impressive about Lee County’s team is that it took this game. Other programs would not play in this game, putting perfect seasons on the line and supposedly tarnishing a memorable season.
The Georgia champions were out to show resolute from the opening kickoff.
And it was close for opening half.
Corum gave SFA a 7-0 lead on the opening drive. The Panthers, who entered the game having not played a competitive game in more than a month, looked like a well-oiled machine.
Corum ripped through the heart of Lee’s defense after 76 seconds for a 55-yard TD up the middle.
Lee wasn’t impressed and responded with a nifty six-play, 80-yard scoring drive of its own. Junior QB Kyle Toole capped things off with a quick slant TD pass from inside the Panther 5 on third down to Chauncey Magwood with three minutes left in the first to knot the game at 7.
SFA’s defense then took over for a 14-7 edge with 10 seconds to go in the first. Clinton Burton’s hard hit on the left flank spilled the ball on the turf and Osman Savage completed the scoop-and-score from 43 yards for the TD.
In the second quarter, the game was tied at 14. Shaun Kimbrough, a hard-nosed downhill runner, barged over from the 1 with 9:41 left in the half.
After that SFA peeled off the final 43 points and for the second straight year, the Panthers were on their way to the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series victory in one of the nation’s toughest venues.