After the game, it was a pair of red-clad Emanuel County Institute fans who said it best while directing their comments to the Wilcox County Patriots’ massive postgame huddle Friday night.
“Good game, good season, y'all played hard,” they said, speed-walking past midfield and the massive throng of Patriots players and fans who congregated, consoling one another after Friday night’s 41-21 GHSA Class A championship game loss to ECI.
By all accounts, to those on the Wilcox County side, those Bulldogs fans were right.
It was indeed a good season for Wilcox County, a team that had never made an appearance in the state championship game in its nearly 50-year school existence. And it was a team that felt it was destined for victory on the final day of this year’s football season.
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“We’ve got nothing to hang our heads about,” Wilcox County head coach Mark Ledford said. “What we’ve done this year has made me happy. I’m proud of what we’ve done for the community; this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
As Ledford’s Patriots battled the Bulldogs, fighting to keep their fans happy, they looked like a team blinded by one of the fastest and most powerful players they have seen this season.
“ECI is a strong team, and he’s a great player, but he’s not the only one on the team,” Ledford said of ECI running back Washaun Ealey.
Ealey had a day that even Hollywood couldn’t script. The tall, sturdy back sneaked and slithered his way through numerous holes, marching his way toward a 275-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance.
“I never underestimate a man,” senior Wilcox County linebacker and defensive end Deauntay Legrier said. “Like, in the (Georgia) Dome, he had a great game. You could see he was a great player. But my hat’s off to him. But as a team, we didn’t play the game as well as we could.”
Legrier said he thought Ealey was the beneficiary of some key blocking schemes that led him to the big evening.
“We faced plenty of running backs that were as good as Ealey this season, but he's just got a better line than most and got some big blocks,” Legrier said.
On ECI’s first drive, Ealey carried the ball nine times for 50 yards and finished the possession with a 7-yard touchdown run. He said he took the opportunity to hit Wilcox County in the jaw early.
“They say we can’t beat that team, and we wanted to prove the point that we could pound the ball inside,” Ealey said.
Despite tallying 21 points, Wilcox County’s biggest offensive highlight came in the final minutes of the third quarter, when quarterback Lorenzo Dennard tossed a 71-yard touchdown pass to his twin brother, Alfonzo.
The game was originally scheduled to be played at Wilcox County’s Donnie Clack Stadium, but earlier in the week, it was moved to Crisp County’s Cougar Den because both teams sold more than twice the amount of seats that the tiny 2,000-seat Rochelle Stadium could hold. At kickoff, an estimated 10,000 people packed the Cougar Den, with many standing in designated areas behind the end zones.