By NICHOLAS SULLIVAN
RETURNING THE FAVOR — Only twice since the 2012 season has the Cartersville football program seen its season end prior to the state quarterfinals. Both losses came in the second round of the playoffs.
The Canes made sure to avoid a third occurrence Friday at St. Pius X. In the process, Cartersville avenged one of those two previous round-of-16 defeats.
On Nov. 22, 2013, a Canes team ranked No. 2 in Class 3A hosted an unranked Golden Lions side. St. Pius emerged with a stunning 31-19 victory that evening in the final game for longtime head coach Frank Barden.
Ironically, Cartersville won by the exact same uncommon final score Friday.
In so doing, the Canes continued another pattern in the series — road teams winning. Cartersville’s victory moved visitors to 3-0 in the brief history between the programs. The Canes won the initial matchup in the same stadium, upsetting the sixth-ranked Golden Lions by a 34-31 score in the first round back in 2008.
ANOTHER 2-MINUTE DRILL — Cartersville has put together some impressive drives late in the first half this season, and Friday’s second-round win over St. Pius X provided another example.
Reminiscent of their 38-second series that gave them a 17-7 halftime lead in a key Region 7-AAAAA game just weeks ago at Calhoun, the Canes put together a quick-strike attack in the waning moments of the second quarter against the Golden Lions.
This time around, Cartersville took advantage of a shanked punt, starting the possession at its own 42-yard line. Even still, the Canes needed to go 58 yards in 1:07. They used up 60 of those 67 seconds to break a 7-all deadlock.
Senior quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson hit Kyler Johnson for a huge 33-yard gain on the second play of the drive. A screen pass to Quante Jennings sandwiched around two spikes set up Del Rio-Wilson for a 7-yard rushing touchdown to give Cartersville a lead it would not relinquish.
“There’s been a couple of situations this year where a 2-minute situation has paid off for us,” Canes head coach Conor Foster said after Friday’s game. “Proud of those guys for taking it so serious in practice. Now, you kind of see how it pays off for you in big moments. Just appreciate them taking advantage of every opportunity.”
PLAY OF THE SEASON? — Scoring the go-ahead touchdown late in the first half certainly proved to be a pivotal moment in Cartersville being able to roll up 31 straight points en route to a quarterfinal berth.
However, the play of the game — and perhaps the season — came on the next Canes possession.
Cartersville got the ball out of halftime, looking to double its lead. Facing a third-and-10 from near midfield, quarterback Carlos Del RIo-Wilson threw a pass directly down the middle of the field. When the senior released the ball, two St. Pius X defenders were attempting to cover Devonte Ross.
Del Rio-Wilson threw the ball into open space, and Ross had no problem splitting the defenders to put himself in position to make a play. But Ross, a recent Marshall commit, still needed to lay out for an incredible one-handed reception.
Seconds after Ross’ other-worldly catch, the Canes took a 21-7 lead. The Golden Lions were never able to pull back within one score.
MAKING THE TREK — After only playing a total of two road playoff games (not including neutral-site contests) over the previous eight seasons, Cartersville is set to travel away from Weinman Stadium for the second consecutive week.
This time, it will be an extremely long trip to face Ware County. The school is located in Waycross — as in the Canes will be heading Waycross the state. But in all seriousness, Cartersville players, coaches and fans will be in for quite the trek.
The two high schools are roughly 280 miles away from each other. To put that into perspective, the Canes’ three most recent postseason road trips — Woodward Academy (2016), Baldwin (2018) and St. Pius X (2020) — were about 240 miles (one way) combined.
The good news for Cartersville is that a quarterfinal victory would set up a home playoff game in the semifinals. With the Canes being a No. 2 seed, they would host either Calhoun or Coffee (both are 3 seeds) if they can beat the Gators.
For the record, the Class 5A state championship game is scheduled to take place at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 30 at Center Parc Stadium (formerly Georgia State Stadium, Turner Field and Centennial Olympic Stadium).
PLAYOFF PICTURE — The Class 5A state playoffs saw several lopsided final scores in the second round.
In fact, Cartersville’s 31-19 win over St. Pius X represented the tightest margin in a game that wasn’t as close as that score would indicate. On the other end of the spectrum, Ware County — Cartersville’s quarterfinal opponent — won 49-25 over Creekside after holding a slim 28-25 lead in the fourth quarter.
Elsewhere in 5A, Calhoun beat Clarke Central (33-14) and Coffee defeated Starr’s Mill (24-9) to set up a quarterfinal matchup in Gordon County. Other 5A quarterfinal matchups will feature Warner Robins at Blessed Trinity and Eastside at Jones County. Blessed Trinity, Cartersville and Calhoun were the top three seeds in Region 7-AAAAA.
Outside of Cartersville and Calhoun’s road wins — as well as Cedartown’s 56-0 home rout of North Oconee in 4A — Friday wound up being a mostly disappointing night for teams in the area.
Rome suffered a shocking 42-10 loss at River Ridge in 6A; Northwest Whitfield fell 42-17 to Riverdale in 4A; Rockmart dropped a triple-overtime heartbreaker to top-ranked Cedar Grove in 3A; Model was shut out in a 35-0 loss to Rabun County in 2A; and in Class A-Private, both Darlington (42-6 loss to Prince Avenue Christian) and Christian Heritage (28-25 loss to George Walton Academy) were eliminated.
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