CARROLLTON – It was their turn to celebrate.
A year ago, the Central-Carroll Lions won a 40-34 thriller over the Callaway Cavaliers to claim the Region 5-AAA championship.
On Friday night in Carrollton, those two teams met again, and once again a region title was on the line.
This time around, the Callaway players and coaches were the ones smiling when the final horn sounded.
In another hard-fought game that came down to the closing moments, it was the Cavaliers making the plays late to capture a 21-14 victory on a muddy, sloppy field at Central-Carroll’s stadium.
After the defense made a huge stop on fourth down, the Cavaliers got the ball at their own 24-yard line with a little more than four minutes remaining.
Senior running back Cedric Maynard, who now has more than 2,000 yards this season, ripped off a 71-yard run to the 5-yard line.
Two plays later, quarterback Dylan Johnson scored on a 6-yard keeper, and Noah Stephens made the extra point to give Callaway a 21-14 lead with 2:54 to play.
After an interception by senior linebacker Dre Martin, Maynard had a 14-yard run for a game-clinching first down.
After a kneel-down play by Johnson, the party was on.
“It feels great,” senior defensive back Tyrek Frazier said. “We knew it was going to be a good game coming in. We fought tough, we had adversity out here, and we got the win. I’m proud.”
Many of the Callaway players who were on the field on Friday were also a part of last year’s game, which ended when Central-Carroll blocked a field-goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown as time expired.
Winning a region title is always nice, but considering what happened a year ago, this championship was extra special.
“It feels good, especially after what happened last year,” senior defensive lineman Rashawn Lovelace said. “It’s a great feeling.”
The Cavaliers finished the regular season with a 9-1 record, and they’ll carry a nine-game winning streak into next week’s state-playoff opener at Callaway Stadium.
“I’m so excited for these kids, and how far they came from Day 1, and the work ethic and great attitude that they have,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “It’s just such a great representation of Callaway football.”
Central, which was going for a second consecutive perfect regular season, bounced back from a 14-0 first-half deficit to make a game of it.
The Cavaliers drove 60 yards on their opening possession for a touchdown, with Maynard doing most of the work.
Maynard carried the ball nine times on the drive, and he had an 8-yard run on third down that gave the Cavaliers first down at the Lions’ 2-yard line.
Johnson scored on the next play for the 2-yard touchdown run, and Stephens made the extra point to give Callaway a 7-0 lead with 7:29 left in the opening quarter.
In the second quarter, Maynard found the end zone for the 22nd time this season.
The possession began on the Callaway 7-yard line, and Maynard and Johnson had back-to-back carries of 15 and 18 yards to get the ball to the 39-yard line.
The Cavaliers kept pushing forward, and Maynard capped the drive with a 29-yard touchdown run, and the Stephens extra point made it a 14-0 game with 4:27 left in the half.
Central’s offense, which had been stymied, came to life on the next possession.
Quarterback Jaleel Terry capped an 82-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown run, and with 45 seconds left in the second quarter, Callaway’s lead was down to 14-7, and that was the score at the half.
Late in the third quarter, Central showed off its big-play ability to pull even.
After a Callaway punt, Central took over at its own 24-yard line.
On third down, Terry lofted a pass toward the left sideline, and Byron Brown caught the ball in stride and raced 71 yards for the touchdown.
With the extra point, it was a 14-14 game with 2:24 left in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Central took over at midfield following a Callaway punt.
After getting a pair of first downs, Central was facing a fourth-and-three situation from the Callaway 23-yard line.
The Lions, after a timeout, decided to go for it.
The running play was stuffed for no gain, and the Cavaliers got the ball at their own 24-yard line with 4:10 to play.
Martin said the defense “just needed one more play, one more stop. We got the stop, and we came away with the victory.”
Callaway’s offense, which had struggled to get much done since scoring the second touchdown, came to life after the defensive stop.
“We were ready,” Callaway fullback Brandon Boddie said. “We knew we had to go down and score. We were encouraging each other.”
On first down, Maynard took a handoff from Johnson, and his long run set the Cavaliers up just six yards from the end zone.
After the Cavaliers lost a yard on first down, offensive coordinator Matt Napier called for the keeper.
Johnson went to his left, got some nice blocks, and fought his way into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
“I was going to do everything I could to get in,” Johnson said. “I got a great block on the outside by Joe (Brown), and it opened up a free lane.”
Central still had nearly three minutes to work with, but Callaway’s defense was up to the challenge.
After the Lions lost yards on their first two plays, Martin’s interception all but sealed the victory.
Any chance the Lions had of getting the ball back ended with Maynard’s first-down run.
The region-championship trophy was coming home to Callaway High.
“These guys, we’re a big family, and I love every one of them,” Wiggins said. “It’s such a special time for these young men.”
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports