For the Carver Tigers, it was about exorcising the playoff demons from the past two seasons.
They were successful in doing just that Friday night at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, defeating Cross Creek 35-6 in the first round of the Georgia High School Association Class 4A playoffs.
It is the first time since 2013 the Tigers advanced past the first round. They lost 13-12 at home to Jones County in 2014 and were blown out 70-34 by Drew last season in the opening round.
The game was never in doubt from the outset. Carver forced the Razorbacks three-and-out on their opening possession, then took four plays to march the ball down the field, with U.S. Beasley’s 42-yard touchdown run giving the Tigers a 7-0 lead just 2:22 into the game.
Cameron Jessie’s pair of touchdown runs in the second half extended the Carver lead, then Jacobi Cunningham capped off the scoring with two touchdowns bookended around halftime. He scored on a 13-yard pass from Romello Kimbrough with seven seconds left in the half, then returned the opening kickoff of the third quarter 68 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 35-0 lead and eliminate any hope of a Razorback comeback.
“Cunningham is a special kid,” said Carver coach Dre’Mail King. “You know you want to get the ball in his hands, but you have to try and find ways to do it. We have other guys doing different things within the system. He does a great job. The past two or three weeks, he’s played excellent on special teams. We can put him in the backfield, put him at slot receiver. That kid’s a heck of an athlete.”
“My role on the team is to bring energy and be a leader each and every game,” Cunningham said. “Coach told us right before we came out for the second half to try and (get a big play on special teams). We take special teams pretty seriously in practice. We’ve been practicing that lately, and Coach said get out there, get the blocks, take it to the house, and we executed.”
The fourth quarter was played with a running clock as the GHSA’s 30-point mercy rule was invoked. Cross Creek quarterback Devon Hicks found Jelon Hilton for a late score for the Razorbacks.
“We put guys in throughout the fourth quarter,” King said. “The fact they were able to score there, that’s OK. We gave the younger guys experience. They work hard every week, and our job is to give them an opportunity to play.”
The win is the fourth straight for Carver since beginning the season 3-4.
“It’s all about the guys coming together and believing in each other,” King said. “This game was an example of what it means to stay as one unit and put all the negativity behind you. It’s been a long road, and I think we’ve done an excellent job with it. (Cross Creek) came out and played hard, but it was clear we were the better team.”
“(Losing) two years in a row in the first round, that’s not a good look,” Cunningham said. “We tried to come back, get it out of our heads, and make a statement that we’re still that same Carver High that can make a deep run in the playoffs.”
Now, Carver sets their sights on Blessed Trinity, who defeated Chapel Hill in first round action Friday night. The Tigers will travel to Roswell to face them next Friday.
“I’ve seen Blessed Trinity a couple of times, and they look very strong, but I think we’re also very strong,” King said. “If we have anything like last week in practice, I guarantee you we’ll come out and play good ball.”
For King and the Tigers, however, they took pause after Friday night’s game to savor the victory and the first time in three seasons the Carver program has advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
“That’s huge for our program, for our kids,” King said. “There were a lot of people doubting these kids. People aren’t always positive when it comes to dealing with our football team, but they closed the door, and they were able to do what they needed to do within themselves. I love these kids. They blocked out all the negativity and were able to stick together and do what we needed to do.”
“It was the seniors,” said Jessie, himself a senior. “They came together and said we’re not going home any more. We’re not losing in the first round any more. We’re going to the championship. The team bought in. They bought in with Coach King. At first, it was a little iffy, but now it’s really working out.
“There was a lot of adversity at first and a lot of doubters. We’re trying to shock Columbus, Georgia.”
Key play: Any hope Cross Creek had of a second half comeback was instantly dashed on the opening kickoff. Jacobi Cunningham returned the ball 68 yards to give Carver a commanding 35-0 lead just 14 seconds into the third quarter.
Difference makers: Carver — Cameron Jessie, RB, 14 rushes, 97 yards, 2 TD; Jacobi Cunningham, ATH, 1 catch, 13 yards, TD, kickoff return TD; U.S. Beasley, WR, 4 rushes, 53 yards, TD; Romello Kimbrough, QB, passing TD, 9 rushes, 66 yards.
Coach quote: “What we try to do as coaches, we try to put our kids in the best situation. Once we have them there, it’s up to kids to make the plays. No doubt about it, everyone on this team wants to make plays. That’s what it’s all about. I like being able to go to four or five different offensive threats; that’s what we do so it makes it hard for other teams to gameplan against us,” said Carver coach Dre’Mail King.
Player quote: “We know we have to go hard every day at practice, 110 percent. Our leaders have to lead the team, no playing around on the field. Let’s go to work,” said Carver running back Cameron Jessie.
Friday at Memorial Stadium
CA – U.S. Beasley 42 run (Dane White kick), 9:38.
CA – Cameron Jessie 4 run (White kick), 6:28.
CA – Jessie 15 run (White kick), 2:20.
CA – Jacobi Cunningham 13 pass from Romello Kimbrough (White kick), 0:07.
CA – Cunningham 68 kickoff return (White kick), 11:46.
CC – Jelon Hilton 8 pass from Devon Hicks (kick failed), 0:16.
Records: Cross Creek 6-5; Carver 7-4. Next: Cross Creek, end of season; Carver, at Blessed Trinity in GHSA second round, Friday.