BUENA VISTA, Ga. — The chants started with five minutes left in the game. By the time there were two minutes remaining, they had trickled down to the field, where the Marion County players took up the mantra. When the clock hit zeroes, it was a deafening roar.
“We’re goin’ to the Dome! We’re goin’ to the Dome!”
In a game billed as a rematch between region foes, the only question by halftime was how much the Eagles would win by. That total ended up being 33, a 40-7 victory over Hawkinsville in the Class A public state semifinals.
Marion County’s (12-1) win, which avenged its only loss of the season, clinched its first ever berth in the state title game, which will be played at 11 a.m. next Saturday at the Georgia Dome. It will face Charlton County, which blocked an extra point with four seconds left to defeat Irwin County Friday night.
“I’m excited for these fans,” Eagles coach Mike Swaney said after the game. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be there three times, but for these people this is everything. Even a kid like our quarterback (Dustin Eckert) who’s been to the Peyton Manning football camp has never been to the Georgia Dome. I told them before the game that they had a chance to do something that very few high school football players get to experience.”
The win extended the best season in the program’s eight-year history. It clinched the most victories and the deepest playoff run.
And it all came despite a slow start offensively for the Eagles. Despite excellent field position on each of their first three offensive possessions — they started in Hawkinsville (9-4) territory at the 37, 15 and 23 — the Eagles failed to gain a single first down and gained only 18 total yards, one less than their point total during the same period of time.
Thanks to two defensive scores and two field goals, however, Marion County raced out to a commanding 19-0 lead. After the teams traded three-and-outs to start the game, Eagles defensive back Lorenzo Smothers jumped in front of a pass from Hawkinsville quarterback Dakota Sloan on the Red Devils’ next possession. Smothers caught the ball at the Red Devils 44, zigged and zagged past potential tacklers and took the ball to the house for the game’s first score.
“I just jumped in front of it and did what my team needed me to do,” Smothers said. “Big plays — that’s what keeps us motivated. A great atmosphere always keeps us excited.”
A minus-5 yard punt for Hawkinsville after another three-and-out set up the Eagles at the 15, but they had to settle for a 26-yard field goal from kicker A.J. Wells. Hawkinsville moved the ball well on its next possession, taking 11 plays to get to the Marion County 18. The Red Devils fumbled on play No. 12, however, and Marion County’s Corey Johnson scooped the ball up and rumbled 73 yards for another defensive score. Marion County got the ball at the 23 to start its next drive after a 6-yard punt, but settled for a 35-yard field goal by Wells.
Finally, Hawkinsville shifted field position on a 63-yard punt to force the Eagles to start at their own 12. On the third play of the drive, however, Smothers broke loose for an 82-yard touchdown run that made it 26-0 with just over three minutes before the break.
The run was by far Smothers’ longest of the day. He finished with 10 carries for 121 yards and two touchdowns, the second a 10-yarder to open the second half and put the Eagles ahead 33-7.
“He’s a guy we haven’t had in the past,” Swaney said of Smothers. “We’ve had a lot of good football players, but we haven’t had a game breaker. A guy who can, every time he touches the ball, go the distances. And to get where we’re going, you need a guy like that.”
Where they’re going is the state championship, and Swaney wants his players to know that it will be a business trip.
“We’re going up to win the football game,” he said. “We’re not going up to tour the Georgia Dome.”
Hawkinsville connected for an 18-yard touchdown pass from Sloan to Alec Mays before the break, but that was all it would get the entire game. Terrence Riley scored Marion County’s final touchdown, a 1-yarder in the fourth quarter.
The team’s leading rusher for the season, Johnny Royal, finished with 14 carries for 74 yards.
Friday at Marion County
Hawkinsville 0 7 0 0—7
Marion County 9 17 7 7—40
MC—Lorenzo Smothers 44 interception return (kick failed); 7:15
MC—A.J. Wells 26 field goal; 3:10
MC—Corey Johnson 73 fumble return (Wells kick); 9:09
MC—Wells 35 field goal; 5:45
MC—Smothers 82 run (Wells kick); 3:15
H—Alec Mays 18 pass from Dakota Sloan (Jose Sanchez kick); :19
MC—Smothers 10 run (Wells kick); 6:48
MC—Terrence Riley 1 run (Austin Brannon kick); 7:40
Records: Hawkinsville, 9-4; Marion County, 12-1. Next: Hawkinsville, season over; Marion County, 11 a.m. Dec. 14 vs. Charlton County in Class A public state championship at the Georgia Dome.