Columbia Middle School football coach Tony Kramer was a little concerned last week.
His team was on the verge of completing an unbeaten season, but with a loss Tuesday to the visiting Lakeside Middle School squad, the Raiders and Panthers would have finished with identical 5-1 records.
"I was nervous going in," Kramer said. "We had guys that were not focused, and that was what I was worried about."
Columbia County's mythical middle school championship was at stake, and that was a title Kramer didn't want to share.
"I told the kids before the game, it's right there - all you have to do is reach out and grab it."
The Raiders responded to that request in more ways than one - they clinched a perfect 2002 campaign by reaching out and grabbing the Panthers by the throat and never letting go.
The numbers tell the story of a convincing 20-0 win.
Columbia Middle's defense limited Lakeside to 39 yards of total offense and only two first downs, both of which came in the first quarter. In the second half, Lakeside was stuffed for minus-8 yards.
On offense, Columbia quarterback Brandon Gray rushed for 59 yards and tallied two touchdowns on just four carries, while tailback Junior Coley tacked on 89 yards, including a touchdown and a two-point conversion run.
The Columbia Middle School Pep Club cheers for their team during the last game of the season. The club is the only pep club in a Columbia County middle school
Photo by Jim Blaylock
With the victory at Lazenby Field, Columbia closed with a 6-0 record. Lakeside posted a 4-2 mark.
"Even if we're in college or pro, we'll still remember who we played with and what we did this season," Columbia lineman Joe Perez said. "This will keep us in memories for years to come."
Perez, Benny Herron and Jacob Gibbs anchored the defensive front for the Raiders, and their strong-arm tactics led to tackling opportunities for linebackers Rick Stahman, Kyle Golden and Chris Dorris.
Justin Hayes was solid at defensive end, Coley recovered two Lakeside fumbles, and at safety, Gray intercepted a pass. Malcolm Blackburn, Jas Adams, Chris Pickett and Andrew Knight also pitched in on defense.
Basically, every Raider did his job, and that was nothing new - Columbia Middle shut out its final four opponents of the season, including blanking Lakeside back-to-back.
"We had a very good team, dedicated, good running backs, good line, good receivers, a great coach," Gray said. "Our defense was perfect. Our whole team was just perfect to me."
Some aspects of the finale were far from perfect.
Both teams were plagued by penalties, and two Panthers were ejected from the game for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Additionally, Columbia fumbled six times (although the Raiders lost only one) and threw an interception, while Lakeside committed three turnovers.
The first miscue by the Panthers was key. On the initial play from scrimmage, Lakeside coughed up the football. Columbia took possession, and two plays later Gray brook loose for a 20-yard touchdown.
"Whenever you play a good team like that, and you can score right away, the momentum just bounces your way," Kramer said.
Columbia clung to an 8-0 lead until the fourth quarter. Gray powered for another score to increase the lead to 14-0, and with 2:07 left to play, the Raiders provided a finishing touch.
Coley took the handoff and appeared bottled up, but shook off some tacklers and sped for a 36-yard touchdown.
"My dad tells me to just keep my legs driving," Coley said of the play. "I knew I was getting locked down, but I had to get my touchdown. I wasn't going to let anybody stop me."
The same held true for Columbia Middle in 2002.
With county bragging rights secured, the Raiders made one last gang tackle. They cornered their coach and gave him an ice-water shower.
But Kramer wasn't concerned anymore.
"You've done something not many teams get to do," Kramer told his players. "You'll remember this for the rest of your life.
"Now, we can celebrate."
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