POINT BREAK — Knights playoff fate undone by botched PAT in overtime

The Southerner


Junior running back and linebacker Isiah Jenkins woke up on Saturday, Nov. 24 feeling “dead sore,” both mentally and physically, after a Friday night he has been trying to forget.

“I could barely lift my arm up,” Jenkins said. “I just stayed in the bed all day.”

The night before, Jenkins and the rest of the Grady football team took the 45-minute bus ride home after losing a heartbreaker 21-20 in overtime to the Monroe Area Hurricanes. Despite going up 14-0 in the first half after safety and wide receiver Dashawn Benton scooped up a fumble and scampered 80 yards for a touchdown, the Knights surrendered their lead and the game, leaving head coach Ronnie Millen’s career win total dangling at 99 wins.

The Knights scored first in overtime on a six-yard touchdown toss from senior quarterback Kivon Taylor to senior wide receiver Darren Dowdell. Jenkins, who typically is a long snapper for punts, then stayed on the field to snap the ball for the point after attempt. JaByron Webb, who had successfully snapped the first two PATs in the game, remained on the sideline. Millen explained the decision.

“Isiah actually has more velocity on the ball than [Webb],” Millen said. “The other times they almost got blocked because it was slow. [Isiah]’s a little more experienced, not more so for field goals, but he’s our first snapper for the punters. He gets the ball back there pretty good.”

Jenkins was not prepared for the task.

“I was looking around thinking [Webb] was gonna come out, but he never came, so I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I guess I gotta do it,’” Jenkins said. “I was nervous really. I had a feeling going into it that I was gonna mess up. That’s why when [senior holder Patrick Carroll] said set, he gave me the signal, and I paused for like 2 seconds to try to get myself together. Then it just happened.”

Jenkins’ snap sailed over Carroll’s outstretched hands and bounced backwards to the 23-yard line, where Carroll fell on the ball as four Hurricanes swarmed around him.

“I didn’t realize it until everybody started screaming,” Jenkins said. “I thought the field goal was good, so I looked up, and I turned around, and everybody was running. I was mad. I felt like I lost us the game.”

All Monroe Area had to do was march 15 yards for the touchdown and convert the extra point, and they would advance to the semifinals. The Knights, however, wouldn’t go down without a fight, especially Jenkins, who, on a crucial third-and-six play, “really blew the play up” in the backfield, Millen said. Grady forced the Hurricanes into two fourth downs, but Monroe Area converted their second fourth-and-one with a 1-yard quarterback sneak into the end zone. The Hurricanes made their PAT, and just like that, it was over.

It was a telling ending for a Grady team (9-3) that encountered costly special teams miscues in all three of its losses. In the Knights’ 28-14 loss to Riverdale, the Raiders returned a kick for a touchdown with under three seconds left in the first half and then again to open up the second half. In the 22-19 region-championship loss to Carver, Grady allowed a blocked punt and a kick return for a touchdown. Finally, of course, the bad snap against Monroe Area (11-1) prevented a chance for a second overtime. Taylor said special teams is “actually the most important part of the game” and the coaches shouldn’t have left the responsibility up to younger players.

“I’m not gonna say [the special teams unit] made us lose, but they got more years to try to make up for what they did wrong. That was our last chance,” Taylor said. “For future references, if seniors and upper classmen wanna win, they should do it themselves if they don’t want their senior year to be in jeopardy. You see the size of those freshmen here, and a team like Monroe… big size, speed. … It’s natural that a senior is gonna be bigger, faster, stronger.”

The junior varsity players had noticeably more time working with the varsity team this year than in past years. Millen said the coaching staff integrated JV and varsity practice, which allowed the younger players to benefit from varsity coaching and gave “the most injured team I’ve ever coached in my career” some much needed depth. In the first-round playoff game against the River Ridge Knights, Millen had to start three freshmen on the defensive line because of injuries. The Knights still easily handled River Ridge, forcing three turnovers in the first half and riding Hakeem Todd’s 116 yards on the ground to a 27-17 victory.

The victory was the second road playoff win for Grady since 1990; every other APS school is winless in road playoff games during that time span. Despite the difficulty of winning these games, Millen said the subdivided structure of the playoff brackets actually gave Grady a favorable draw this season. If the Knights (a three seed from Region 6) had been able to pull off one more road victory against Monroe Area, it would have set up a matchup against South Effingham (a four seed from Region 3) at Grady. On the other hand, Carver (a two seed from Region 6), who beat Grady to capture the region championship, would have had to face Sandy Creek in the second round. Monroe Area’s only loss on the year came to Eastside, 35-0. Sandy Creek beat Eastside 55-0. (Monroe Area, incidentally, defeated South Effingham 48-7 on Nov. 30 to advance to a AAAA semifinal showdown against Sandy Creek).

Despite missing an opportunity to advance on a favorable draw, Millen said he was pleased.

“We had a great year,” Millen said. “I think we had kids that worked really hard, played hard, and that’s all you can ask.”

Millen will be back next year, but for several players, the second-round playoff game was their last game in a high school uniform. Benton, a senior wide receiver and safety, desperately wanted to extend the season and prolong his time with the team.

“When I came to Grady, I didn’t like it at first, but I met [the football team], and we just got that bond and connection,” Benton said. “I love wearing a Grady uniform. I love playing with these guys.”

The final moments of Benton’s high school career, as he saw Monroe Area’s PAT travel through the uprights, still resonate in his mind.

“My head just went down,” Benton said as he slowly shook his head. “Then all I saw were the Hurricane fans running across the field, and it was heartbreaking. One of the worst moments of my life.”

As the fans stormed the field, creating a sea of purple, the Knights reluctantly shook hands with their opponents before slowly and quietly walking to the locker room. As the realization hit that the season was over, the sound of sobbing was the only noise that broke the silence in the room. Eventually, Benton and Dowdell spoke up, dishing out encouragements.

“When I walked in, everybody was sitting down with their heads down,” Benton said. “I came in and the first thing I did was look around. I looked at everybody. I looked at my jersey. I looked at my helmet, and I kissed the G because I knew it was my last time putting [my helmet] on.”

Benton’s respect for the “G” does not come without reason. Over the past two years, the football team has transitioned to being more about the “G” and less about the “me.”

“This team right here was a different type of a team,” Millen said. “Everybody contributed to the success. Even some kids on the scout team had a big impact with us winning ball games this year. A lot of people just see the guys scoring the touchdowns and catching all the passes and making tackles, but man I tell you, those kids on the scout team in practice giving us that look, getting us prepared were just as big.”

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