Cartersville head coach Joey King and junior quarterback Tee Webb both fought back tears after the Class 4A state semifinals. It always seemed likely the night would end this way. As the fourth …
Cartersville head coach Joey King and junior quarterback Tee Webb both fought back tears after the Class 4A state semifinals. It always seemed likely the night would end this way.
As the fourth quarter got underway Friday at Weinman Stadium, it appeared the Canes would be shedding tears of sadness and frustration after another heartbreaking home playoff loss. Webb had turned the ball over four times — two fumbles and two interceptions — to allow Marist to hold a 14-10 lead.
Webb got one final chance at redemption, and he took it.
The first-year starter, who is replacing the state's all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns in Trevor Lawrence, faced a third-and-12. He dropped back and was immediately under pressure. Webb stepped up in the pocket, unleashed a bullet pass and took a huge hit — all in the blink of an eye.
It's unlikely Webb saw the result of the play, but the vociferous Cartersville faithful did. Sophomore Devonte Ross caught the pass in stride near the 10-yard line and ran untouched into the end zone to give the Canes the lead.
One final stop by the defense allowed Cartersville to escape with a 17-14 victory to punch its ticket to the state championship game. Cartersville will face Blessed Trinity in a rematch of last year's second-round matchup that led to tears of a different kind being shed by the Canes.
"We've worked so hard for this," Webb said. "We've been practicing hard all year. Everybody gives it their all on this team. It's just really special what we've got."
What was really special on Friday night was Ross. The standout sophomore hauled in four passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, while also playing outstanding defense as a cornerback against one of the nation's best athletes in Kyle Hamilton.
"Devonte is a really good player for us, and he's going to be a really good player the next couple of years," Webb said. "Everybody trusts him. He's respected. Even though he's a sophomore, he's respected on this team. Everybody pushes him to be the best he can be, and I think he's doing it."
Following a wild sequence when a Marist player was blocked into a bouncing punt and Cartersville's Jackson Lowe jumped on top of the loose ball, Ross brought in a long pass down the sideline to set up Cartersville's first points of the night.
However, the Canes had a touchdown called back on the ensuing play and settled for Oscar Hernandez's 26-yard field goal. The sophomore's kick put Cartersville (14-0) up 3-0 on Marist (11-3) late in the first quarter.
Another deep ball to Ross, this one a touchdown pass to the front corner of the end zone, helped put the Canes up 10-0 midway through the second period.
"It was sorta, kinda the game plan," Ross said. "I needed to step up for my team and do what's best for us. I put everything on the line for them. I love these boys."
With all the momentum, Cartersville looked for a potential knockout blow late in the first half. Instead, it was Marist that landed a series of haymakers to stun the hosts.
Hamilton made his first of two interceptions on a tipped pass. Later in the ensuing drive, the War Eagles threw a deep jump ball for the Notre Dame commit. Hamilton hauled it in just shy of the goal line to set up Lincoln Parker's short touchdown run.
Two plays into Cartersville's next possession, a fumble on a strip sack was returned for a touchdown by Jalen Clark. In the span of 45 seconds, Marist went from trailing 10-0 to leading 14-10, stunning the packed Canes side of the stands and sending the equally full War Eagles section into hysteria.
"Just keep believing, keep fighting for each other," King said of his halftime message. "We talked about maximum effort all week. Just keep fighting as hard as you can fight and good things will happen."
Through much of the third quarter and into the fourth, it appeared fighting hard just wouldn't be enough.
A fumble recovered by Marist inside the Cartersville 10-yard line put the War Eagles on the verge of a potentially decisive two-score advantage. The Canes, though, held firm, forcing a short field-goal try.
Taking advantage of a high snap, Marquail Coaxum ran around the end of the formation and appeared to get a touch on the missed attempt.
Another pick by Hamilton on a deep ball thwarted another Cartersville opportunity, but the Canes quickly got the ball back. The defensive struggle continued, as Marist forced yet another punt.
But on the second mistake of the night by the War Eagles' kick coverage team, a defender was called for roughing punter Andrew Elizalde. It gave Cartersville a fresh set of downs, and moments later, Webb was peeling himself off the ground after making the play of the season to keep the Canes alive.
"Just think about the next down, forget about the last one," Webb said of how he kept from getting discouraged by the turnovers. "No matter what happens, just forget about it and go on to the next one. No matter if it's good or bad."
Marist had nearly eight minutes to at least work into field-goal range. But Harrison Allen had other ideas.
The team's leading tackler lived up to the billing on two crucial plays in the final minutes. Playing as a spy on Marist quarterback Connor Cigelske, Allen dragged down the junior in the open field on a third-down play to force a punt.
After Cartersville was forced to punt the ball back on a pooch kick by Webb, the Canes had less than two minutes until a potential trip to Atlanta for the title game. The War Eagles converted an impossible fourth-and-22 on a pass from Cigelske to the incomparable Hamilton.
With barely 30 seconds remaining, Marist faced another fourth down. Cigelske took off running, hoping to get to the edge and pick up another first down. That's when Allen made his second sensational stop, dragging the quarterback down short of the line to gain.
"It was the best feeling ever," Allen said. "I knew we were going to state after that."
With Atlanta United hosting the MLS Cup on Dec. 8, all GHSA state championship games were moved back four days. That means Cartersville and Blessed Trinity will meet at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The opportunity for the Canes to win their third state title in the past four years and fifth in program history was too much for Webb to comprehend in the immediate aftermath of Friday's thriller.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Webb said, his eyes puffy and red. "I can't even describe it right now. I don't have any words."
That's fine. He's got nearly two weeks to find some. Plus, his coach had a few to say while choking back his own tears.
"It's awesome," King said. "Marist is a heckuva program with a heckuva tradition. Our kids fought their tails off not only to win but also to do it after we turned the ball over four times. Our defense, they held their ground all night long. Offense responded when it needed to with some big plays. Tee made some big throws. Devonte had some huge catches.
"To win one like that, it doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know about these guys."