Walden saves Thomas-Central at finish

THOMASVILLE -- Talk about drama. Talk about excitement. Talk about high school football at its absolute best, with plot twists and turns that would rival a James Bond movie.

Thomas County Central soared to 9-0 on the season Friday night when junior quarterback Erik Walden, capping a second straight remarkable fourth-quarter drive, darted 17 yards up the middle with 32 seconds on the clock to give the Yellow Jackets a 29-26 victory over a Cairo team that did not -- and the Central kids will tell you this -- deserve to lose.

"It was just one heck of a ballgame," Central coach Ed Pilcher said. "I knew they'd be ready for us and give us their best and they sure did."

"They played a heck of a ballgame," Cairo coach Warren Field said. "And I'm proud of our kids. We played our hearts out. But what good does it do when you can't win?"

After a deadlocked first half -- each team traded touchdowns -- things really got interesting in the second half.

First, Central marched down and Jonatan Abarca booted a 22-yard field goal to give the Jackets a 9-6 lead, their first of the game.

After Cairo recovered a Walden fumble at the Central 28, Field dropped back and lofted one perfectly into the hands of Mark Gainous in the end zone, giving Cairo a take-that, 13-9 advantage with 4:47 to go in the third quarter.

Central got it back and began a Pilcher specialty, a clock-killing, meat-grinding, grass churning ground assault, inching and pounding and driving the ball down the field against a stubborn Cairo defense.

The drive killed the final four minutes of the third quarter and the first 4 minute of the fourth. And when David Dawson plunged in from the five-yard line, with Abarca's PAT, it was 16-13, Central.

But Cairo, led all night by junior quarterback Blake Field -- who was simply sensational -- dramatically came right back. Field was effective throwing to his backs out of the backfield and even running and had just handed off to Dante Harrell, who was breaking through the Central secondary when a collision with Brandon Walden at midfield forced a fumble and Central recovered.

But before you could say Veer, Walden and Dawson got mixed up on the handoff and Cairo pounced on it, recovering at the Central 22.

In four plays, Clifford Hammonds toted it in to put Cairo ahead again, 19-16.

With 8:07 to play, if the Gnats' defense could hold, Field's club would have beaten Central a fourth straight time.

But the Yellow Jackets were resilient and Walden rallied them one more time.

Back came Central, driving 72 yards in just six plays, Dawson busting in from 18 yards out with 5:46 to play, putting the Yellow Jackets back in front, 23-19.

Was this it? Had Cairo, which had played so bravely, so stubbornly, so gallantly, run out of gas? Heck, no.

After a wonderful kick return from Billy Frazier got the ball to midfield, Field calmly picked the Central secondary apart, firing two strikes to Brandon Robinson, then perfectly executing a ballfake and darting for 10 crucial yards. After a pass to Thorton Anderson got the ball to the seven-yard line, Leon Allen plunged over to put Cairo back on top. With Joseph Sharp's PAT, it was 26-23, Cairo. And with just 1:48 to play, Pilcher's dream of an undefeated season looked like a pipe dream.

Once again, as he did in the Thomasville and Colquitt County games, Erik Walden took over at the 28. And with the poise of a college quarterback, either ran or threw underneath passes to Billy Guyton, Brandon Walden or Cole Grier, marching the ball right down the field.

With 50 seconds to play, the ball was on the Cairo 30 and on the sidelines, Central assistant coach Bill Wilhelm was warning the field goal team to get ready.

On the Cairo sideline, Field and company were desperately trying to rally their tired defense. Nobody could play any harder, but Central had been pounding at them the entire second half. Cairo had scored relatively quickly and they never got a rest.

Central called for a short toss over the middle and Walden hit a diving Cole Grier at the Cairo 17. Just 39 seconds to go. Could the Syrupmakers hang on?

On first and 10 at the 17, Walden took the snap in the shotgun and took a step back, as if to spot a receiver. Then the slender junior took off, darting and knifing and twisting his way through the Cairo secondary until he hit the end zone with just 32 seconds left. The Central side erupted with noise. Abarca's kick was blocked and if Cairo could get within field goal range, overtime was a possibility.

But Field took over with just 32 seconds left, not enough time to pull off a miracle.

"I'm proud of my guys," Blake Field said. "We played the best we could."

It was a game to remember in a season to remember. And with Ware County in next week, a region title and who knows what else ahead, they ain't done yet.

And after their magnificent effort, neither is Cairo.

This story is reprinted with permission from the Thomasville Times-Enterprise.

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