Grovetown Middle School came into the final football game of the season Tuesday night hoping to finish off an unbeaten, 6-0 season.
The Patriots remained undefeated after the game against rival Harlem -- a game that ended in a 14-14 tie, giving Grovetown a 5-0-1 record, the best among Columbia County teams.
Grovetown also finished 5-0-1 two seasons ago, though the lone tie came about due to a forfeited game.
"Last year, they had a rough time," standout running back Shadeed Reed said of the Patriots' 1-5 record last season. "This year, we came out undefeated. But I just wanted to win this game."
Grovetown coach Dan Sneeringer calls the annual game the "This Side of the Interstate Rivalry," and the players know each other with the schools being close in proximity. Thus, Harlem coach Ryan Guy said this particular game means just a little bit more than the others.
"It's always a good one between Harlem and Grovetown," said Guy, the son of former NFL punter Ray Guy. "The kids are always excited, so it's a fun week of practice."
The Patriots held a 7-6 lead nearing halftime when Matt Turbovsky found Bryce Roberts on a touchdown pass. That put Grovetown ahead 14-6.
A mixup out of the halftime break left Grovetown kicking off to Harlem, just as the Patriots had done to start the game. Both defenses controlled the opposing offenses until Harlem got the ball late in the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs, who came into the game with a 1-4 record, produced a long drive. Then, on fourth down with a little less than two minutes remaining, quarterback Hunter Rippe lofted a pass to Dontel Frails for a 35-yard touchdown.
Harlem needed a 2-point conversion to tie the game, and Rippe rolled left before finding Mason Rollins in the end zone for the tying reception.
"It was a pass option, so I could have run it if I wanted to," Rippe said. "It was either to the wideout or him, and he was wide open."
Grovetown answered, producing a lengthy drive despite not having much time left. Reed carried the load, with two long runs that took the Patriots to the Bulldogs' 9-yard line.
However, Harlem recovered a fumbled snap, foiling Grovetown's attempt at an unblemished season.
Grovetown's solid season coincides with an exciting time for the middle school, Sneeringer said. With Grovetown High School in its second year, the middle school now has its own high school to which it feeds students.
Thus, the middle school staff has been able to get on the same page with high school coach Rodney Holder.
"We've got a high school now that we feed all of our kids to," Sneeringer said. "We're running their program. (Athletic Director Todd) Booker and Holder have been spectacular.
"We've always been about player development in middle school, but now we can focus on that, knowing our kids are going to Grovetown High."
Sneeringer said motivating players at the middle school level can be tough, simply because the season is so short.
"We want to get them pumped up for every game, but the season is six games," he said. "By the time you get firing on all cylinders, the sixth game is there."
Aside from the season finale against Harlem, Grovetown's closest contest came against Lakeside.
The Panthers finished 5-1 and lost by a single point, 7-6, to the Patriots. Grovetown's lone touchdown in that game came on defense. Lakeside was led on offense by running backs Josh Jones, Jalen Harrison and Andrew Walden-Studstill.
The rest of the county's teams played a very tight schedule of games. Evans' record was 3-3, and the Knights' efforts were led offensively by the combination of running back Sanchez Sams and quarterback Matt Anderson.
Anderson, Evans coach Blake Crewe said, improved throughout the season. In the final two games, he threw for three touchdowns and roughly 400 yards.
Stallings Island finished 3-3 and got better throughout the season, coach Casey Heckathorn said. He said the team was not quite as big as some other teams and didn't have the same athleticism, but determination and preparation helped Stallings Island produce a solid season.
Riverside, 0-6 the season before, finished 2-4 and was devastated by the injury bug, coach Daniel King said. When healthy, however, Riverside won its first two games in comeback fashion.
Greenbrier Middle finished the season with a 3-3 record. Information on Columbia Middle's record wasn't immediately available last week.
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