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Gators fight to the bitter end; come up short 14-13 as time runs out

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    Following a big hit and a subsequent fumble recovery by Gator senior Cole Hudson, Gatewood was in business at the Southland 42-yard line with 5:58 and the clock running in the third quarter. Wasting no time, quarterback Landon Wilson dropped in a textbook
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    Gatewood Gator Evan Bennett (7) had a big night running the football against Southland last Friday night as the sophomore continues his strong return following shoulder surgery in the offseason. DAWN SINCLAIR/Contributed

AMERICUS – Playing lights out defense as the offense continued to gel, the Gatewood Gators fought to the bitter end before coming up six seconds short in a heartbreaking 14-13 loss to Southland Academy last Friday night.

Trailing 14-7 and driving to the Raiders 30-yard line after a horse collar penalty, Southland called timeout with 33.4 seconds left in the game to slow Gatewood’s momentum.

When play resumed, Gator quarterback Landon Wilson quickly found tailback Evan Bennett for a 7-yard pass reception in the flats to the Raider 23-yard marker. With the clock running down to 6.9 seconds, Wilson threw to the right front corner of the end zone and senior Jackson Crowe, falling backwards, made the catch with two defenders all over him for the touchdown, cutting the Raider lead to 14-13.

With the game on the line, Gator head coach Jeff Ratliff had a big decision; kick the extra point for the tie and overtime or go for two points and the win and end the hard fought battle right there.

“The benefits outweighed the results right there,” said Ratliff. “The benefits are I hope my players knew we are in it to win it. Period. We didn’t come all the way to Americus to tie. I think the team wanted to go for two. We had the momentum and I thought it was a good call. We drew the play up but Southland played it well.”

Wilson took the snap, moved left and the defensive penetration stacked the play up at the line, stopping Wilson for a 1-yard loss. Game over.

“The decision to go for two I would not second guess,” Ratliff said. “We would go for two every time there.”

Gatewood went three and out to start the game and the defense came out inspired and thwarted Southland to force a punt. Gator junior Demarion Maddox lost sight of the football and the punt hit him with Southland falling on it at the Gator 35-yard line.

A 24-yard wheel screen to the left put the Raiders in business at the Gatewood 9-yard line. With 5:27 left in the first quarter Southland drew first blood for a 7-0 edge.

Early in the second quarter, the Gator running attack was dominant, pushing its way to the Southland 36-yard marker with 10:33 before halftime. The Raider defense stepped up and stopped the drive and took over on downs at 8:01.

The Gator defense was defiant, hitting Southland in the mouth and gave the offense great opportunities to advance. Driving to the Raider 14-yard line with a first and 10, junior Justin Jameson continued his strong work in the drive, rushing for 45 yards to propel the Gatewood offense.

A 2-yard loss, an illegal procedure flag and two incomplete passes snuffed the drive for Gatewood at the 19-yard line, turning the ball over yet again on downs.

After intermission, the pattern remained the same for the Gators as they turned the ball over on downs again midway through the third quarter at the Raider 3-yard line.

On the next play, Southland coughed up the ball at the 4-yard line following a big hit from safety Wilson. With 5:56 showing, Cole Hudson tied the game at 7-7 on a 3-yard blast.

On the ensuing possession, Southland self-destructed and faced a “3 rd and yonder” before the third frame ended with the score knotted and 12 minutes of football left to play.

It was a fourth quarter donnybrook with neither team yielding until 3:05 was all the time left. A Wilson pass was tipped and intercepted by Southland at their own 48-yard line. With 2:15 showing, Raider Hudson Collins broke free off the right side and sprinted 52 yards for the go ahead touchdown and a 14-7 advantage.

On the ensuing kickoff, Gatewood moved to the Raider 24-yard line after a sensational 44-yard catch by Haley. Four incomplete passes later, the ball went over on downs again.

With three timeouts, the theatrics of the barn burning conclusion began. Gatewood stopped Southland and used a timeout after each play. It paid off and the Gators got the stop at the 30-yard line. Two plays later, Crowe executed his heroics but the two-point conversion was thwarted for the Southland win.

“Hats off to our defense,” said Ratliff. “What an effort all night long by these guys. I don’t know what the south Georgia mystique is here but these kids from Eatonton played pretty hard as well.

“I thought we hit them pretty good and I am pleased to see how they rallied with Garric [Embry] not being out there. Our offense eventually got some things going but we’re just not that “big play” offense we’ve been in the last two years so it is a grind, it is a grind and it is a grind. One mistake and we’re behind the chains again and we have to overcome that.”

With four games remaining in the season and both pivotal region games looming, now is the time for the Gators to continue pushing forward with one goal in mind.

“It is week six and I told the team during pre-game there aren’t any excuses anymore,” recalled Ratliff. “We have to get it done. I’m really proud of the finish. We held onto our timeouts and we used them and got a stop. We got into our two-minute offense and Landon [Wilson] found a way. That’s what winners do and he is a winner.”

The Gators hit the road again Friday night, traveling to Perry to take on a good Westfield School team. For Gatewood, another tough opponent on the road means another big step towards November.

“Westfield has a good football team,” explained Ratliff. “It is a tough schedule we’re playing now and we are getting ready for November. It will be a good environment for us to go play because we might be on the road in the playoffs.

“We have to suit it back up next Friday and get ready to go play.”