The Effingham County Rebels didn’t lock up a Class AAAAA state football playoff berth Friday. But they took a step — and a very big one at that — toward that goal.
A long touchdown drive ended in Markese Herbert’s score with less than a minute to play in the game, and the Rebels captured a dramatic 16-14 win over previously unbeaten Richmond Hill.
With the win, the fourth straight for the Rebels, Effingham improved to 4-2 on the year and more importantly, 3-0 in Region 3-AAAAA. The Wildcats, 5-1 on the season, slipped to 2-1 in the region.
"It means a lot," senior running back Stewart Hamilton said. "It can motivate us to keep going. We’ve all got a big heart."
In each game during the streak, the Rebels have trailed at some point. Against Richmond Hill, the Rebels trailed twice. The Wildcats led 14-8 with 9:03 to play and the Rebels taking over on their own 20-yard line.
"We talked to them in the South (Effingham) game that every time we needed to answer the bell, we did," Tomberlin said. "They’re just good kids. They’re tough; they’re hard-nosed. What really defines a man? He gets up when he gets knocked down. When everything is going wrong, he keeps fighting.
"We told them, we want you to keep fighting. And they did. That’s the mark of a man. Anybody can play when they’re out ahead. Getting off the canvas is the mark of a man."
The Rebels converted two third downs and picked up a fourth-down conversion when Richmond Hill jumped offsides. Herbert capped the 15-play march with his 2-yard TD run.
On the two-point try, Cal Baker rolled to his left but found no one open and several Wildcats defenders in his path. He reversed course and ran back across the field, outracing the defense to the pylon for the conversion.
"He’s a coach on the field," Tomberlin said of his senior quarterback. "He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever coached. He’s a competitor."
The Rebels had a chance to put up the game’s first score. They drove from their own 36 to the Wildcats 7 in 11 plays. But on fourth-and-2, Baker’s pass to Michael Hamilton fell incomplete."We should have scored down there," Tomberlin said. "Give credit to them. They have a fine, fine defensive team. I felt like we could move the ball. I thought we really turned it up in the second half."
Wildcats defensive back Nick Fitzgerald snared a tipped Baker pass at the Richmond Hill 40. David Katzman ended the ensuing possession, bolting 21 yards on fourth-and-2 for a touchdown. Canon Rooker’s extra point put Richmond Hill ahead 7-0 with 5:02 left in the first half.
Effingham turned a Richmond Hill mistake into points early in the third quarter. Wildcats quarterback Dominique Allen bobbled a snap at the Rebels 30, and Tavon Powell recovered. But a chop block call and a run for no gain left the Rebels with second-and-25 at their own 19.
The Rebels gained just 57 yards of offense in the first half, but more than doubled that total on their second play of the second half. Baker rolled left, stopped and floated a pass over two Wildcats defenders. Stewart Hamilton made an over-the-shoulder catch and took off, slipping away from a defender, delivering a crushing stiff-arm to another at midfield and speeding to an 81-yard touchdown reception. Baker’s two-point pass to Kemaun Tillman put the Rebels ahead 8-7.
"I was determined to score," Hamilton said. "Coach always tells us, don’t be denied."
The Rebels had been working on the play for weeks, but Tomberlin had been hesitant to call for it. But with the Wildcats lining up to stop Effingham’s unbalanced formation, the Rebels made the call.
"We’ve had it ready for a week or two, and I just haven’t pulled the trigger on it," he said. "That’s one of our silver bullets."
Richmond Hill went 59 yards in 10 plays, overcoming two penalties, to re-take the lead as Katzman scored from 8 yards out. Rooker’s PAT stretched the lead to 14-8 with 43 seconds to go in the game.
The Wildcats committed 11 penalties, costing them 80 yards, and the two biggest infractions may have been two offsides calls on Effingham’s game-winning drive — including an offsides on fourth-and-1 at the Wildcats 48.
"Count the penalties — that’s what really killed us," lamented Richmond Hill coach Lyman Guy. "Effingham did a great job. They played hard. My greatest fear of an opponent on our schedule is us. And it showed up tonight."
The Wildcats outgained the Rebels 262-235, but Effingham’s defense held Richmond Hill’s rushing attack to 64 yards under its season overage of 299 yards per game. The Rebels gained 179 yards in the second half alone and also had eight of their 12 first downs in the final two quarters.
"I couldn’t be prouder of our defense," Tomberlin said. "Best defense we’ve played since I’ve been here. They have a very good offensive team. Our line played well, and our backs ran hard. I feel maybe we grew up some, maybe turned a corner."
Baker finished 4-of-9 passing for 107 yards, and Hamilton had three catches for 100 yards. Hamilton also ran 21 times for 92 yards, while Cameron Edwards added 26 yards on nine carries. Herbert had 5 yards on three attempts.
Effingham is tied with Ware County atop the region at 3-0, with four region games left to play. The playoffs are still more than a month away, but Friday night’s win over another postseason contender has the Rebels’ veteran coach upbeat.
The Rebels have not made the playoffs since 2005.
"They’re all big," Tomberlin said of Effingham’s upcoming games, "and they’re all really good. I know we haven’t clinched a playoff spot, but almost."