EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series on Grovetown High School's inaugural football season. Read more here.
The scoreboard and the atmosphere told you the game's outcome had long been decided, but the Grovetown football team drove forward with the purpose of a team grinding toward a playoff win.
Its players sensed they could record a touchdown against their powerful opponent: Northside-Warner Robins, a school near Robins Air Force Base that has won 61 of its past 64 games and is ranked in every national poll you can find.
Late in the third quarter, Grovetown was 13 yards from the end zone, opposite a video scoreboard that flashed: Northside 40, Grovetown 0. The appearance of the Northside players wearing blue jerseys tinged with orange and white made them look like college players from Auburn University.
Grovetown's play call came in from the sidelines: 25 Waggle. It was a pass play designed for the quarterback to fake a handoff, a back to dash to the right flat hoping to draw coverage from a linebacker and a tight end to trickle free across the middle.
Quarterback Xavier Crain had barely left the field to this point. Playing safety, he had been forced to make a tackle or defend a pass on virtually every play.
This time, though, Crain was on the attack. He took the snap, looked to the right, then whistled a spiral in the middle of the field toward freshman Hunter McBride. The ball thudded into his stomach, and McBride pivoted up the field and stumbled across the goal line. The Warriors had scored a 13-yard touchdown. So elated were the sidelines, the holder for the extra-point attempt forgot to take the field. Grovetown burned a timeout, its moment of success lasting a bit longer.
GROVETOWN, A FIRST-YEAR school in Columbia County, has not been deflated by three lopsided losses to powerful teams it scheduled for its first year of football. The Warriors have fallen 51-0 to Buford, 50-0 to Fairfield Central (S.C.) and last Saturday 47-7 at Northside, dropping their record to 5-4 with one game remaining.
As their inaugural season nears its expiration, Grovetown's players say they have gained a sense of accomplishment not by winning five games, but by playing these tough teams and proving, for however many moments, they belonged.
Against Northside, Grovetown recovered a fumble on the first possession, held blocks long enough for running back Seth Hill to earn 117 yards and scored a touchdown against what could very well be the best team in a state with roughly 450 public and private schools playing varsity football.
Its effort earned compliments from Conrad Nix, the 24-year Northside coach who has won two state titles and more than 250 games.
"Being a new team and all, I thought they did a good job," Nix said. "I congratulated them, because I think they'll do well in the future."
After the game, the 52 Grovetown players who had dressed out dropped to one knee, stuck their helmets in the turf and leaned to one side as coach Rodney Holder stood in front of them.
One of Holder's enduring messages this year has been the belief Grovetown can develop into the county's premier program. This season, he often says, should be the beginning of that goal.
On the chilliest night of the season, you could see Holder's breath as he reminded players of his latest lesson: it was once Warner Robins High School -- not Northside -- that dominated football in this town.
"What happened was, (Northside) was persistent " Holder said. "If you show persistence, it's going to happen."
GROVETOWN NEEDED NOT TO rush and prepare for an opponent this week, because its has back-to-back open dates. Holder likes this schedule. Should Grovetown have played a region schedule and qualified for the playoffs, he said, it could prepare weeks in advance for the postseason.
So while the junior-varsity team studied film from Lakeside's varsity game with Greenbrier a season ago, searching for tendencies they might see in an upcoming JV game against Lakeside, varsity players relaxed.
Before practice, they lingered in front of senior Marvon Danzie's 1988 BMW 735, recalling their recent game. They insisted they were never intimidated.
"You don't feel it when they hit you ... you feel the embarrassment (of a bad play)," senior Antonio Beavers said.
The Warriors' touchdown against Northside made them feel like anything was possible. A lineman hollered: "A bunch of sophomores just scored on the best team in the state."
Holder, taking a break from doing the team's laundry two days later, said: "We felt good about the execution of the play itself. But we won't get to the point where we're not happy just to show up and score."
Later Monday afternoon, with almost 20 days until their next game, coaches rewarded the varsity with a day off, sort of. They played flag football on the school's main field, with Holder serving as all-time quarterback. The outcome of the game, whose glory and statistics were playfully debated all week. The team made up of students from three other schools in the county was slowly seeming more like one.
"We had separation early -- we were still Greenbrier, Harlem, Evans," said Danzie. "We are Grovetown now."
Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GROVETOWN'S INAUGURAL SEASON
at *Buford, L 51-0
at **Walnut Grove, W 37-6
vs. **Langston Hughes, W 35-20
at Allatoona, W 14-6
vs. *Fairfield Central (S.C.), L 50-0
vs. Pacelli, W 37-7
at **Langston Hughes, W 35-14
at **Locust Grove, L 13-12
at *Northside-Warner Robins, L 47-7
vs. Mount Paran Chrisian, Nov. 6
*past state champion; **first-year program