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LaGrange wins playoff thriller

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Sports Editor

If the season had come to a close Saturday night, it still would have been a memorable and successful fall for the LaGrange Grangers.

Considering where the program was at the close of the 2019 season, a playoff loss to New Hampstead would have done nothing to diminish what the Grangers had accomplished over the previous few months.

The Grangers weren’t thinking that way, though.

Even as New Hampstead built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, LaGrange’s coaches and players continued to believe.

That belief, it turns out, was well-founded.

With the help of a flawlessly-executed onside kick, LaGrange staged a fourth-quarter rally to beat New Hampstead 30-26 in a Class AAAA playoff thriller at Callaway Stadium.

New Hampstead had a nine-point lead before LaGrange’s Jaylan Brown threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to AJ Traylor, and Micah Prophett’s extra point made it a 26-24 game with 4:07 to play.

Because of a penalty on New Hampstead, the ball was placed at midfield for the kickoff, and head coach Matt Napier decided to go with the onside kick.

Prophett’s kick bounced off a New Hampstead player, and the ball rolled all the way inside the 10-yard line before it was recovered by Jeffery Sims.

Kale Gibbs scored on an 8-yard run on the next play, and when the two-point attempt was unsuccessful, LaGrange had a 30-26 lead.

New Hampstead made it to LaGrange’s side of the field on its final possession, but it turned the ball over on downs, ending its hopes.

LaGrange ran a couple of kneel-down plays and the clock ran out, and the home team celebrated a come-from-behind win and a berth in the second round of the state playoffs against Perry.

“They were 7-1 coming in, and we’d watched them all week, and our staff was nervous,” Napier said. “They knew they were talented and well-coached, and they knew we’d have our hands full. We didn’t play our best game, but we’re really pleased to come away with the win, and we made the plays when it mattered.”

What has been a remarkable turn-around season for the Grangers will continue for at least one more week.

After winning a combined six games from 2016 to 2019, the Grangers are 8-3 this season, and they’ve won a playoff game for the first time since 2012.

“For them to find a way to win speaks volumes for the integrity and their character and their no-quit attitude,” Napier said. “It’s a special group. I love to see them be able to compete at this level when they’ve struggled so much. It’s a good feeling in your heart, a warm feeling when you see them succeed with all they’ve been through.”

The Grangers were coming off a 20-19 come-from-behind win over the Hardaway Hawks that helped secure the number two spot in Region 2-AAAA and a home playoff game.

Flash forward a week and the Grangers once again found themselves trailing in the second half, but they fought back and added another winning chapter to their memorable season.

“We’ve got a lot of heart. We don’t give up,” said senior defensive lineman Lataurus Swindle. “We’ll fight until there’s no time on the clock. Like last week, we fought tooth and nail, and we brought that same mentality this week.”

Gibbs, who ran for more than 200 yards and had the game-winning touchdown, is part of a senior class that has faced so much adversity over the years, both on the field and off.

Most recently, teammate Trae Cole was killed in a car accident right before a late-season game against Troup.

“We’ve come together as a brotherhood,” Gibbs said. “We’ve had losses in the past. We’ve had the loss of three different teammates. We know what it’s like to be down. We know how to lean on each other. We pick each other back up, and that’s how we come back in games like these.”

Gibbs did his part to make sure the Grangers’ season would continue.

Gibbs had 28 carries for 217 hard-earned yards, and for the second straight game he had a fourth-quarter touchdown run to give LaGrange the lead.

“We knew Kale is who he is,” Napier said. “He has special ability and character, and you want to give him the ball in that situation. It’s the second week in a row where we called the same play. That’s how we scored against Hardaway.”

While the night ultimately belonged to LaGrange, New Hampstead appeared to be in control after rallying from a 17-14 halftime deficit to go up by nine.

New Hampstead got within two less than two minutes into the second half on a safety, with the snap to LaGrange punter Parker Shattuck sailing out of the end zone.

Following the free kick, New Hampstead drove 48 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, with Rodney Wade bulling his way into the end zone from one yard out, and the visiting team had a 23-17 lead with 8:10 left in the third quarter.

Later in the quarter New Hampstead recovered a fumble on the LaGrange 35-yard line, and that led to a Luis Morales 22-yard field goal, extending the lead to 26-17 with11:07 left in the game.

New Hampstead, after making a defensive stop, was on the move looking to put the game away, but it came up short on a fourth-down play at the LaGrange 43-yard line.

It took the Grangers four plays to find the end zone, with Brown capping the drive with his 14-yard scoring strike to Traylor, and it was a two-point game after the extra point by Prophett.

LaGrange kept the pressure on by recovering the onside kick, and it scored on the next play to reclaim the lead, and New Hampstead was unable to answer.

While there would have been time for LaGrange to kick deep and get the ball back, Napier felt the time was right to attempt the onside kick.

“When we got that penalty, it just makes sense to take that shot,” Napier said. “We didn’t have any timeouts left. They’ve been pretty good offensively, so it was a smart move for us in that scenario.”

Prophett flawlessly executed the onside kick.

The ball took a big bounce and careened off a New Hampstead’s player’s hands, and Simms eventually made the recovery, and Gibbs scored moments later.

“It says a lot about Micah,” Napier said. “He spends a lot of time, even outside of what we do. He’s always working, and he pays attention to the details.”

After Gibbs’ touchdown with 3:59 to play, LaGrange still had some work to do.

New Hampstead made it into LaGrange territory, but an incomplete pass on fourth down ended its chances.

When the clock hit zero, a jubilant group of players and coaches celebrated the program’s first home playoff win since 2008.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Gibbs said. “I’ve never felt anything like this before.”

In the first half, it was New Hampstead striking first, with Aljhanod Thomas ripping off a 48-yard touchdown run with 5:19 to play in the first quarter, and Morales split the uprights on the extra-point attempt.

LaGrange answered with a 25-yard field goal by Prophett, cutting New Hampstead’s lead to 7-3 with 11:17 to play in the first half.

Moments later the Grangers recovered a fumble and drove 62-yards for the go-ahead score, with Brown’s 1-yard touchdown run and the Prophett extra point making it a 10-7 game with 8:02 left in the first half.

New Hampstead, after an interception set it up deep in LaGrange territory, got a 5-yard touchdown pass to Pauly Seeley to Kaden Sonnabend with 3:07 remaining in the first half, and the Morales extra point gave the road team a 14-10 lead.

It took the Grangers one play to reclaim the lead.

On first down, Brown found a wide-open Traylor down the field for a 74-yard touchdown run, and the Grangers led 17-14.

Traylor finished with three catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns.

LaGrange made it to the New Hampstead 32-yard line on its final possession of the first half, but an interception ended that threat.

The Grangers got the ball first in the second half, but they went nowhere, and a bad snap on the punt attempt resulted in a safety.

New Hampstead added a touchdown and a field goal to take a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

LaGrange’s deficit was still nine points when it made a fourth-down stop at its own 47-yard line with 5:40 to play.

Brown capped that drive with a 14-yard scoring pass to Traylor, and New Hampstead’s lead was down to two with 4:07 to play.

After the onside kick recovery, Brown said “there was no doubt at all” that the Grangers would score.

Brown was right.

Gibbs took the handoff from Brown, and he ran nearly untouched into the end zone through a hole created by an offensive line that exceled all night.

LaGrange’s defense, which rose to the occasion when it had to, made one final stop to end the suspense.

After New Hampstead’s field goal early in the fourth quarter, it came up empty on its final three possessions.

“Having our defense make a huge rally like that infects our offense,” Gibbs said. “It’s contagious.”

Senior linebacker Jarno Huzzie led the defensive effort with 18 tackles, and Isaiah Jordan had 15 tackles.

Next up for LaGrange will be Perry, which beat Westover 30-14 in the first round.

Perry, the number one seed from Region 4-AAAA, will host the game on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

The winner advances to the third round to play either Marist or Flowery Branch.

OF NOTE: For more on LaGrange’s win, see Wednesday’s sports section

LAGRANGE 30, NEW HAMPSTEAD 26

L – 0 17 0 13 – 30

N – 7 7 9 3 – 26

First quarter

New Hampstead – Aljhanod Thomas 48-yard run, Luis Morales kick, 5:19

Second quarter

LaGrange – Micah Prophett 25-yard field goal, 11:17

LaGrange – Jaylan Brown 1-yard run, Micah Prophett kick, 8:02

New Hampstead – Pauly Seeley 5-yard pass to Kaden Sonnabend, Luis Morales kick, 3:00

LaGrange – Jaylan Brown 74-yard pass to AJ Traylor, Micah Prophett kick, 2:46

Third quarter

New Hampstead – Team safety on snap out of end zone on punt, 10:12

New Hampstead – Rodney Wade 1-yard run, Morales kick, 8:10

Fourth quarter

New Hampstead – Luis Morales 22-yard field goal, 11:07 26-17

LaGrange – Jaylan Brown 14-yard touchdown pass to AJ Traylor, Micah Prophett kick, 4:07

LaGrange – Kale Gibbs 8-yard touchdown run, two-point attempt fails, 3:59