When the Saints marched to victory: Cedar Grove wins first football state title

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Cedar Grove offensive lineman Justin Shaffer, middle, holds up the Class AAA state championship trophy as teammates Netori Johnson, left and Jelani Woods celebrate. Photo by Travis Hudgons

When Jermaine Smith took over as head football coach at Cedar Grove High School in 2013, he knew he had enough talent to build a consistent winning program, but he also knew it would not be an easy task.

In 2013, the team finished the season 7-5 on a second-round playoff loss. In 2016, the team finished 13-2 with a Class AAA state title—the program’s first football championship in school history.

“It feels good. I just feel good for the guys, for the community and for the people at Cedar Grove [who came] before me,” Smith said. “It was a process. [We couldn’t] just get here. We had to work our way to it and we did it the right way. The guys put work in this year.”

The Cedar Grove Saints defeated the Greater Atlanta Christian Spartans 30-19 in the state title game Dec. 9 in the Georgia Dome. It was the program’s second appearance in the state finals. Cedar Grove lost to Cartersville in the Class AA title game in 1991.

The Saints had a dominant first half against GAC. On the Spartans’ first possession, a controversial hit by Cedar Grove’s Jadon Haselwood on GAC’s starting quarterback Davis Mills knocked Mills out for the rest of game with a left knee injury. Mills was running along the sideline, looked as if he were going out of bounds but came back into the field of play and was hit hard by Haselwood.

Jonathan Rose came in at quarterback for GAC and was unable to get his team in scoring position, forcing the Spartans to punt to the Saints.

The Saints marched down the field on their opening offensive possession. On fourth down and three yards to go, quarterback Jelani Woods threw a line drive pass to Tre’ Shaw, who  followed his blockers and ran 32 yards to the end zone—giving Cedar Grove a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

GAC responded on the following possession with a 40-yard field goal by Brooks Buce, cutting the Saints’ lead to 7-3.

In the second quarter, a 31-yard field goal by Cedar Grove kicker Solee Fofana extended the Saints’ lead to 10-3. Later in the quarter, running back Grant Walker scored on a 2-yard run, giving the Saints a 17-3 lead. The touchdown was set up by a 55-yard run by running back Darrell Neal.

With 1:09 left in the first half, GAC had hoped to put a scoring drive together before halftime, but Shaw intercepted Rose’s pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. The missed extra point by Fofana left the score at 23-9.

GAC got in Saints’ territory with the clock winding down, but with three seconds left, Buce’s 49-yard field goal attempt fell short.

Things began to unravel for the Saints in the second half. On Cedar Grove’s first possession, Haselwood dropped a pass near the end zone. The Saints were unable to pick up a first down after that play, forcing them to punt.

The Saints defense was able to get the GAC offense off the field on the following drive, but a quick three-and-out by the Saints’ offense gave the ball right back to GAC.

The Spartans put together a scoring drive on a tired-looking Saints’ defense. GAC running back Kyler McMichael scored on a 9-yard run. The extra point attempt was tipped, leaving the score at 23-9 with 2:55 left in the third quarter.

On the following possession, a high snap went over Woods’ head and the ball was recovered by GAC at the 31-yard line. However, the Saints’ defense was able to kill the Spartans’ momentum and forced them to punt.

With the ball within their own 5-yard line, the Saints turned the ball over when Woods’ pass was picked off by GAC’s Trey Morrison. That turnover led to a 6-yard touchdown pass from Rose to Morrison, cutting the Saints’ lead to 23-16.

The game went from bad to worse for the Saints when Neal fumbled the ball on the next possession and it was recovered by GAC on the 26-yard line. The turnover led to a 32-yard field goal by Sean Henderson, bringing the Spartans within four points (23-19).

Although his team had two turnovers and couldn’t get in the end zone at that point in the second half, Smith said he wasn’t concerned about his players’ mindset.

“I tell people all the time that these guys don’t get flustered,” Smith said. “I told the coaching staff to calm down; the guys are going to be all right. They just kept fighting and fighting. That’s a good team over there, and some things are going to happen—adversity will strike. But when adversity strikes, how are you going to react to it?”

The Saints reacted by scoring. A 50-yard run by Walker set up a 17-yard touchdown pass from Woods to Dennis Bell, giving the Saints a 30-19 lead. A turnover on downs by the Spartans and four straight kneel downs by Woods sealed the win for Cedar Grove.

Woods, who graduated early and will start classes at Oklahoma State University in January 2017, said he gave his team an important message in the huddle before the final touchdown.

“I was telling them I got y’all, we’re good,” Woods said. “We just kept our momentum and built it up possession by possession.”

Woods said it was amazing to finish his high school career as a state champion.

“It’s like a dream come true,” he said. “We’ve been looking at this since last year. We knew that we should’ve had it last year but we fell short. So we came out and gave it our all.”

Senior offensive lineman Netori Johnson also gave some encouraging words to his teammates before the touchdown.

“We have to step it up. We came to far too lose this game,” Johnson said. “We had to step it up and I had to lead my team by example. We were getting a little lax out there, not giving our all out there at the time. But we did it and won.”

Smith said he is very proud of his seniors.

“That was my first freshman class,” he said. “Those guys are seniors now and they earned it.”

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