Columbia County's middle school football season was supposed to start Sept. 11, but that was not a day for fun and games.
''We'd been practicing since August 9 trying to build them up and get ready to go, then right at the last minute ... some things are bigger than football,'' Harlem Middle School head coach Benjie Moore said of the postponements prompted by terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.
One week after carnage halted county competitions, the middle school players got into gear on the gridiron, and the six-game schedule remains intact, including the campaign-capping championship showdown.
The Sept. 11 games were moved to Oct. 16, while the finales were extended to Oct. 23. During the last week of action, the six middle school squads are matched by records, and the top two teams will compete for Columbia County bragging rights.
Harlem Middle School player Reggie Rice runs past Riverside Middle School's Joshua Davus on his way to a game-winning touchdown. Harlem Middle's next game will be against Greenbrier.
Photo by Mike Howell
Harlem Middle began its quest for the crown Tuesday with a 32-30 home win over Riverside Middle. Greenbrier kept pace by topping Lakeside at the Brierpatch 8-6, and Evans beat Columbia 18-0.
Each contest was well-attended, and the cheers were welcome relief from a week of tears.
''Life will never be normal again, but it was good to get back on a schedule so the kids will have some stability,'' Wolfpack coach Jody Hilley said.
Greenbrier pulled out its victory on a 35-yard touchdown run by Christopher Johnson, a two-point conversion run by Erik Smith and two big defensive plays by nose guard Tanner White. Late in the fourth quarter, White forced the Panthers into a 12-yard loss then blocked a Lakeside field goal attempt to seal the win.
Carter Morris made his head-coaching debut with Evans Middle, and the Knights shut out the Raiders to win their first game since the 1999 season. Shon Simmons ran for a score and tacked on a pair of two-point conversions, Matt Moore threw a touchdown pass to Wes Baxter, and the Evans defense forced a safety.
''Both teams behaved and fought hard,'' Morris said. ''They've certainly been under a lot of stress. The players were real happy to get back to a normal routine.''
At Columbia Middle School, cheerleaders presented the flag before kickoff. The pregame ceremonies included a moment of silence for the victims of Sept. 11, plus a memorial on the game program, which read:
''Today as we continue on with our daily lives, let us pay tribute to our fallen brothers and sisters and the heroes of this national tragedy. Let us stand united and never forget. God Bless America.''
There also was a patriotic theme in Harlem, as the Bulldogs wore red, the Eagles wore blue, and Harlem coach Moore turned white during the nail-biting finish.
Riverside erased a 20-0 first-half deficit behind the hard running of Paul Estebaleya, Joshua Davis and Brian Gross-Bias. Davis scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lift the Eagles to a 28-26 lead. Gross-Bias bulled in for a two-point conversion run to give Riverside a 30-26 advantage with 2:20 remaining in the game.
After the ensuing kickoff, Harlem took over on its 45 yard line, and on the first play from scrimmage, Dominic Johnson got outside and raced to the Riverside 22. With 39 seconds left on the game clock, Reggie Rice scored from eight yards out to put the Dogs ahead 32-30.
The Eagles weren't finished, though. Riverside advanced to the Harlem 16, but Dog defender Stephawn Jennings ended the rally with a jarring tackle as time expired.
The Harlem players were so happy, they rushed to the locker room without listening to their coach's post-game speech. ''That's one part we forgot to go over, what to do after the game,'' Moore said.
At least there was a game and a reason for celebration.
This Tuesday's middle school football schedule features Columbia at Riverside, Greenbrier at Harlem and Evans at Lakeside. Kickoff for all games is at 5 p.m.
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