Winless in the GHSA football playoffs since 2008, the Grangers won their opening-round game in rousing fashion on Friday night over the Chestatee War Eagles 59-46 in Gainesville.
LaGrange now sets its sights just south of Chattanooga, Tenn. where it will face the Ridgeland Panthers on Friday in a second-round game.
“Anytime you practice on Thanksgiving is a good thing,” LaGrange coach Donnie Branch said. “We haven’t practiced on Thanksgiving since 2008.”
The Grangers found the end zone eight times Friday night, five times on offense, and three times on defense.
Senior Demoton Boyd had a night to remember with two interception returns for a touchdown to go along with a long rushing touchdown in the first quarter.
Running back Benny Gray was another star for the Grangers with three touchdowns, and quarterback Zach Giddens threw an 83-yard scoring pass to Dee Smith.
LaGrange also got a defensive score from Joe Sanders, who forced a fumble and then took the ball in for a touchdown.
Both offenses had it working,
The teams combined for more than 1,000 yards.
LaGrange tallied 524 yards, and Chestatee had 545 yards, but it also turned the ball over six times.
Giddens was on target, completing 17-of-24 passes for 322 yards with two touchdowns, and Smith continued his amazing senior season with 170 receiving yards.
Chestatee established its option-dive from the outset of the game, just as Branch predicted it would, and LaGrange’s defense had a hard time stopping it.
“I knew they had a good team,” Branch said. “Their offense is tough. You can’t simulate it. Again, there were a lot of possessions where we played good defense. It looks awful when you see the scoreboard. I mean, on fourth-and-10 we get beat deep on a deep pass, (there were) some dumb things we did, but hey, winning the game is the important thing against a quality opponent on the road so I’ll enjoy it and I’ll complain Monday.”
Chestatee, the runner up in Region 8-AAAA, came into the contest at 8-2 and figured to be a tough battle for the Grangers (6-5).
In the end, it was the LaGrange speed and its ability to turn War Eagle mistakes into points that made the difference.
That speed was on display right from the start.
On the first play of scrimmage in the game, after two straight offsides penalties on Chestatee, Boyd took a handoff from Giddens and rambled 62 yards for the score.
LaGrange went for and scored the two-point conversion and was up 8-0 just 13 seconds into the game.
Chestatee countered with a touchdown on its second play from scrimmage on a 29-yard run by A.J. Sijiye, and the two-point conversion tied it.
The Grangers needed just two plays to reclaim a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Gray went 73 yards for the touchdown with 10:34 left in the first quarter, and it was 14-6 after the missed extra point.
The Grangers scored again on their third possession, driving 61 yards in nine plays, with Gray finishing things off with a 2-yard run, and it was a 21-8 lead with 4:06 remaining in the first quarter.
After a Chestatee touchdown on a 15-yard scoring run by Quan Clark, who had 198 yards on the night, the Grangers scored their fourth straight touchdown to open the game.
Gray’s 1-yard touchdown run moments into the second quarter extended the lead to 27-15.
Then it was the defense’s turn.
Perhaps the most unlikely score off a turnover came from Sanders with 7:11 left in the second quarter.
Chestatee quarterback Jordan Degraff handed off to one of his backs and a scrum formed around the back near the War Eagle sideline.
Sanders was in the middle of that scrum, and suddenly, the scrum was breaking apart, and going the other way was Sanders out front with the ball in his hands.
He strode into the end zone after returning it 30 yards, and Giddens’ keeper on the two-point conversion attempt made it a 35-15 game.
Sanders said afterward the Chestatee player he stole the ball from looked very surprised.
“I knew he wasn’t stronger than me and I just took it out of his hands,” Sanders said with a grin. “He had a wild look on his face like he couldn’t believe it happened, but it happened.”
LaGrange held a 35-15 lead at the half, but Chestatee took the second half kickoff and scored a touchdown, with Clark capping the drive with a 12-yard run to make it 35-22.
LaGrange then drove downfield after receiving the ensuing kickoff and was stopped short of the end zone.
Instead of gambling, Branch decided three points was better than no points, and Ward kicked a 30-yard field goal to make the score 38-22.
Boyd then came up with the first of his two interception returns for scores when Degraff lofted a high, wobbling pass that turned out to be easy pickings for Boyd, who made a leaping interception, then took it back the other way 30 yards for a touchdown.
Giddens tossed a pass to Gray for the two-point conversion, extending the Granger lead to 46-22.
Down by 24 points, Chestatee wasn’t rolling over as Degraff went back to work, throwing a 60-yard touchdown bomb to wide receiver Kelly Arthur, and the two-point conversion closed the gap to 46-30 with 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
After the teams traded fumbles, two by LaGrange and one by Chestatee, the Grangers stopped the run to take over on downs with 8:51 left in the game.
With the ball on the LaGrange 17-yard line, Giddens threw a strike over the middle to a slanting Smith, who outran the War Eagles’ defense to pay dirt, and the Grangers led 52-30 after the extra-point attempt went wide.
Clark scored again on a 20-yard run, and the two-point conversion made it 52-38 with 4:23 left in the third quarter.
LaGrange was unable to pick up a first down and punted to Chestatee.
Clete Miller’s punt traveled 50 yards and rolled dead at the War Eagle 5-yard line with 2:37 left.
The circumstances forced Chestatee out of its running game and into the pass.
Boyd was lying in wait and made the best of the situation when he grabbed his second interception of the game and returned it 45 yards to make it 59-38 game after Ward added the extra point kick.
“Yes sir, I’m gone,” Boyd said of the last interception. “I’m just glad me and my team made it through the first round, competed and won.”
To its credit, Chestatee wasn’t giving up.
Clark scored his third touchdown of the game on a 46-yard run, making it 59-46 with just 54 seconds remaining.
After the onside kick failed, LaGrange ran out the clock.