SANDERSVILLE -- Following Friday’s GHSA Class AAA semifinal win over Blessed Trinity, Washington County head coach Joel Ingram made it a point to single out the effort of two players.
One, AJ Gray, has been praised week in and week out. He has been named the state player of the year by one organization, and his exploits on the football field are well known.
The other player? Consider his effort to be an answered challenge.
Ethan Ray only has 530 yards on the season. He ranks fourth on the team behind Gray (2,236 yards), Darius Tucker (897) and Justin Lawrence (542). But Ray’s touches Friday played a key role in the Golden Hawks’ 28-17 win, a victory that lifted Washington County into Friday’s championship game against Calhoun.
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“(Ray’s effort Friday) is just a living, breathing example of how our season’s gone,” Ingram said. “We really hadn’t had one workhorse back. Darius Tucker, probably, for the most part. But those guys have been see-saw, back and forth. This guy would be the hot hand for a couple of weeks, and then this guy.
“We challenge him every week, but it was his time. He rose to the occasion. Effort like that from everybody is the reason why -- guys taking care of their job to the best of their ability -- is adding to the success of this team.”
Ray picked up 99 yards on 17 carries, scoring on a 14-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter to put Washington County up 21-10. But his most valuable work came in the fourth quarter, when he ran the ball eight times as a change-of-pace back to complement Gray’s carries.
Ray’s yardage in the fourth quarter -- 35 yards -- wasn’t quite as important as the time he knocked off the clock. Washington County went to a ball-control game in the second half, and the Golden Hawks held the ball for nearly the entire fourth quarter. Blessed Trinity’s only possession came about as a result of an interception, and that possession came to an end after only two plays.
“We just had to grind it out,” Ray said.
Ray’s fourth-quarter yardage against Blessed Trinity nearly matched his per-game average, which rose to 37.9 following the win. He had nine carries of 5 yards or more, topping his 4.6 yards-per-carry average.
“Ethan had kind of disappeared,” Ingram said. “He kind of got in a rut, and he was struggling running the football and all of that. Last week in practice, he had a good week of practice, and we started thinking, ‘Hmmm,’ and we started using him more and more.
“He showed a tremendous amount of patience with their blitz, and he his cuts on his zone runs were outstanding. He had great sense of instinct. A couple of times when it was third-and-4, he’d get 5. Third-and-5, he’d get 6. He was really, really critical for us in that win last week. You’ve got to grind the football out, and we were able to grind the ball.”
In the fourth quarter, Ray picked up a pair of first downs, including an 18-yarder with about four minutes to go that advanced the ball to near midfield.
As a result, Washington County is headed to the Georgia Dome for the second straight year, playing for its fourth state title.
“He’s come a long way,” linebacker Will Coneway said. “He’s developed into a good football player.”
Because of its football team’s appearance in the GHSA Class AAA championship game, school has been called off Friday in Washington County, according to a notice posted on the school district’s website by its superintendent, Donna Hinton.
The community is organizing a sendoff for the team Friday morning, and fans are being asked to line the streets of Sandersville leading from the school toward Atlanta. Fans are being asked to gather at 9:30 a.m., with the team scheduled to leave at 10 a.m. to head to the Georgia Dome.