WARNER ROBINS — For the past 12 years, two words were synonymous with the turnaround of Northside football: “The Drive.”
The phrase referred to a drive that took place in 1997, just before Chansi Stuckey, Tijuan Green and Marques Ivory became household names in the International City.
On that emotional late-game march 12 years ago, Northside — a routine six- and seven-win team to that point — found a way to knock off Lowndes and usher in an era of Eagles dominance.
Friday night at McConnell-Talbert Stadium, the ghosts of that not-so-distant past returned to the site of that win to give newfound meaning to the words “The Drive.”
Late in the fourth quarter remaining in a crucial GHSA Region 1-AAAAA showdown, the Eagles employed a nine-play, 80-yard drive to once again cap a memorable upset over a familiar foe.
Beating Lowndes 10-7 in front of a more-than-capacity home crowd, Northside (5-0, 3-0 1-AAAAA) picked up a much-needed midseason win that was as thrilling as the night it overcame the same power program 12 years ago.
“Well, it doesn’t get any bigger than this in the regular season,” Northside head coach Conrad Nix said. “(Rival) Warner Robins is a big game, and we’ve had some great games with them, but this was an excellent game against a great team. It’s a big win.”
The upset of the nation’s fourth-ranked team helps extend the Eagles’ winning streak at McConnell-Talbert to 37 games. They have won 54 consecutive regular-season games over teams who are non-county rivals.
To solidify Northside’s latest victory, quarterback Briar Van Brunt channeled some of the legendary Ivory’s passing ability when he heaved a 60-yard pass to receiver Cartrell Brooks on a fake reverse.
Coming on the first play of the Eagles’ final dramatic drive, the pass caught the Vikings (5-1, 3-1) off guard. Catching the ball in the middle of the field, Brooks was wrestled down only after an aware safety stopped him at Lowndes’ 20.
“We weren’t making plays in the second half, but Coach called for the big play,” Van Brunt said. “It’s the biggest throw of my life. I just wanted to get us down to score some points.”
The Eagles had the ball just three times in the second half prior to that, and each of those possessions ended quickly, ending in turnovers or punts.
Once Van Brunt led his offense into the red zone, he went to work running ahead five straight times, including on one fourth-down dive that was successfully converted and kept the drive alive.
Four plays after that first down and with the ball resting on the Vikings’ 3, Nix called on sophomore place-kicker Dillon Mixon to attempt a 20-yard field goal to break the tie.
Forced to start after all-state kicker Devon Pike hurt his arm earlier this season, Mixon was making his first kick in a pressure-packed situation.
“I had no doubts about sending Dillon out there,” Nix said. “I thought about kicking it on fourth-down earlier in the (last) drive. But we went for it. When it came up again, I was going to take the points. That’s a big kick.”
Mixon did his best to stay cool and calm.
“I just made sure I kicked it through the goalposts,” Mixon said. “I wasn’t worried about power.”
As the kick sailed through the uprights, the pressure was on Lowndes to answer back quickly. Less than three minutes remained.
On its drive, Lowndes took the ball all the way down to the Northside 4-yard line before the Eagles’ unit clamped down. After a pair of first-down runs to quarterback Cole Parker to put the Vikings in goal line territory, the Eagles’ defense was forced to stand tall.
“We just didn’t want to give up the big play. They made some nice plays and fought hard. But we weren’t going to give up a touchdown at the end,” Northside senior defensive back Brandon Brown said. “We fought too hard for that.”
On second-and-goal with 16 seconds on the clock, Northside’s secondary came up big when it drew an offensive pass interference on a Lowndes receiver, who battled with the safety into the end zone. Scrapping for the ball, the Vikings player came away with the touchdown catch before a pair of yellow flags came cascading onto the field.
With the penalty, the score was negated, and Lowndes was backed up to Northside’s 19. As four seconds illuminated on the scoreboard, the Vikings had time for one last play — a 36-yard field goal from place-kicker Jed Solomon.
After missing a pair of 30-yard-plus field goals earlier in the game, Solomon hooked his third attempt, which would have tied the game. Instead, the long, high kick sailed to the right as Eagles players stormed from their bench and onto the field.
“I just watched it (go right), and I didn’t know what to think,” Brown said. “I’m just so happy. Not a lot of people thought we could win. This was like a state championship game.”
Before the game, a more somber tone settled upon the stadium as a moment of silence was held for Northside alumnus and Warner Robins mayor Donald Walker. The apparent victim of a suicide, Walker died Monday. Funeral services were held earlier in the day Friday.
Friday night, the Eagles wore a single white stripe on their helmets to honor Walker’s memory, and will continue to do so the remainder of the season.