FORSYTH, Ga. - With a comfortable fourth-quarter lead over Mary Persons High School in first-round action of the Class AAA state playoffs Friday night, the Harlem High School football team looked unbeatable.
Domomnique Brown had just rushed for his third touchdown of the game to give the Bulldogs a 22-7 lead with only 8:50 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Harlem's bench was still buzzing from Brown's score when Alex Lazenby and Kelvin Sturgis blitzed the reeling Mary Person's backfield.
Lazenby popped the quarterback, and Sturgis blistered the running back to force a fumble on the attempted option play.
But soon after the Dogs recovered the football near midfield, the peachy playoff appearance turned into the pits at Dan Pitts Stadium.
A pair of Harlem turnovers opened the door for Mary Persons, and the home-standing Bulldogs stepped through, scoring twice in only five offensive plays to tie the game in regulation.
Harlem committed three more turnovers during overtime, which allowed Mary Persons to tally three more touchdowns and steal a 43-22 victory.
"That score doesn't even reflect the game," Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis said. "We laid the ball on the ground on those two crucial fumbles. That gave them momentum, and momentum is a heck of a thing."
For Mary Persons, a tradition-rich football program with 14 region championships and a state title, momentum was enough to end Harlem's season.
Harlem took an 8-7 lead into halftime, thanks to Brown's 29-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion pass from Tim Camp to Josh Wilmoth.
The Dogs dominated the third quarter defensively, holding Mary Persons to three-and-out on two consecutive offensive series.
Meanwhile, Brown scored again to increase the lead to 15-7. Harlem began the fourth quarter with another defensive stop, and after a Mary Persons' punt, the Dogs drove downfield again.
On third and 14, Brown completed a 17-yard pass to John Hardin, down to the Mary Persons 14-yard line. Two plays later, Brown found the end zone from 10 yards out. Ruben Valentin's extra-point kick made it 22-7.
Barely three minutes later, Mary Persons had tied the game, thanks to two Harlem turnovers.
Harlem was clearly caught off guard by the turn of events. In a desperate attempt to avoid overtime, Coach Lewis called a fake punt from the Harlem 39-yard line, but the late fourth-quarter play was stuffed for no gain.
Desperation became devastation during the two five-minute overtime periods. On the opening kickoff, Mary Persons' Jante Carter broke loose for a 74-yard return, and Tay Walker scored on the next play from scrimmage.
Later in the first overtime, Harlem tried a gadget play which resulted in an interception. Brown pitched to Sturgis, who then tried to throw to Brown, but Daveion Zellner picked off the pass and raced 60 yards to the Harlem 18 to set up another touchdown.
Mary Persons capped the game with its third interception and third overtime touchdown. Harlem finished the night with six turnovers, and closed the season with a 6-4-1 record.
"You have nothing to be ashamed of. This is the best team to come through Harlem in 20-something years," Lewis told his players after the crushing conclusion to the 2001 campaign. "It hurts to lose, and that's good - but you've got a lot to be proud of. We brought winning football back to Harlem."
Lewis also offered praise to his departing seniors: Domonique Brown, Kevin Ward, Robert Walker, Travis Reese, Rob Lewis, Robert DelRio, Marco McGahee, Tim Gagner and Tyler Holley.
"The seniors have shown us the way," Lewis said. "You underclassmen have a lot to live up to, but you can do it."
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