DAHLONEGA – When Lumpkin County kicker Will Staples was a freshman, the Indians finished their season 0-10.
On Friday, the now-senior continued his team’s historic, storybook run, drilling a game-winning field goal in double overtime to extend Lumpkin’s perfect season into the third round of the GHSA AAA playoffs, with a wild 45-42 victory over Oconee County.
Second-year head coach Heath Webb said he was “ecstatic” about the win, but not shocked with how it played out.
“Will and I had that conversation yesterday,” Webb said. “I told him to be prepared because it would be one of those games. I knew it would be back and forth and could be close. So I told him to be prepared to kick the game-winner and he did.”
However this wasn’t Webb’s first prophetic claim to come true since taking over the head coaching job in Lumpkin in 2022, as the coach promised to turn the program around through his mantra of “hard work pays off.” Webb’s team has since broken through to new heights, setting the new school record for wins in a season and bringing the school its first playoff wins in its 62nd year of football.
And in all 62 years of Lumpkin football, one would be hard pressed to find a more exciting victory.
“I was ecstatic,” Webb said of his emotions as he watched the game-winning kick sail through the uprights. “I’m so happy for our team and just excited for this community.”
In what turned out to be a barn-burning second half, Lumpkin scored last on a nine-yard strike from Cal Faulkner to Nolan Matthews to tie the game at 35 with just 41 seconds left. From there, the Oconee offense, which relied heavily on the run game throughout the showdown, moved steadily down the field, but not quick enough to put together a scoring chance before time expired in regulation.
After winning the overtime coin toss, Oconee selected to go on defense first. Lumpkin responded with a heavy dose of Mason Sullens, who carried the Indians into the endzone with a one-yard run. With the season on the line, Oconee matched the Indians’ overtime score just two plays later as Warrior quarterback Mac Ricks carried the ball in to score from 10-yards out.
Oconee then took the ball first to start the second overtime, trying the same gameplan of quarterback runs with Ricks. With star running back Caiden Wood on the sidelines, coming out of the game late in the fourth after scoring all five of Oconee’s regulation touchdowns, the Warriors struggled to have the same success, coming up short on a fourth and one to give the Indians a golden opportunity to end the game.
Lumpkin did just that, playing it safe with three runs from Sullens to set them up with a fourth down field goal try from the seven-yard-line. Staples promptly drilled the kick, sending the Indians into a frenzied celebration as well as the third round of the playoffs.
“I knew Will was going to make the kick,” Faulkner said. “I had a lot of confidence in him and knew it was going through the uprights the whole time.”
Three takeaways from Lumpkin County vs Oconee County
The Indians came up clutch in all three phases of the game
Lumpkin’s offense, defense and special teams all overcame earlier struggles to come through in the final moments that decided the game.
Special teams: With a chance to win the game on a fourth down kick in double overtime, Webb trusted the same group that had already failed to convert an extra point early in the first half with a poor snap. However, when it mattered most, the snap, hold and kick were all on point to give the Indians an overtime win.
Offense: When the Indians failed to convert on fourth down, turning the ball over just nine yards from the endzone with just over two minutes left in regulation, it seemed the offense had run out of gas one drive too early. Instead, the Indians were given another opportunity and made the most of it three plays later, scoring the game-tying touchdown.
“I feel like we’re built for those moments and we can go make those plays,” Webb said.
Defense: Despite giving up 42 points on the night, the Lumpkin defense bowed up three times with the game on the line. First was the stop that gave the Indian offense one last chance late in the fourth quarter. With Oconee needing just one first down to seal the game, Lumpkin’s defense forced a three-and-out and got the ball back with 1:03 left in the fourth quarter, setting up the eventual game-tying score that sent the game to overtime. The Indians defense then slowed up the Warriors enough in the final 41 seconds of regulation to prevent them from getting in field goal range. Then in double overtime, Lumpkin stonewalled the Warriors on fourth and one to set up the game-winning field drive just moments later.
“We made critical stops when we needed to make critical stops,” Webb said. “You know [Oconee] is a good football team. You know they’re going to score points, so you have to make critical stops and our defense did that.”
What a difference a year makes
When Lumpkin County hosted Oconee County in the playoffs last season, the game did not end in the same nail-bitting fashion, with the Warriors cruising to a first round victory with 48 points in the first half. One year later, the Indians went from being shutout to winning a shootout, scoring 45 points of their own behind the tandem of Faulkner and Sullens.
Faulkner accounted for three touchdowns through the air including a 73-yard strike to Nolan Matthews and one on the ground, a 34-yard scamper to the endzone.
Sullens scored twice including a touchdown in the first overtime period. Since getting shutout 48-0 by Oconee in last season’s playoffs, Lumpkin has scored at least 30 points in all 12 games and have topped 40 points in eight of the 12.
Hard work pays off
With Friday’s win, Webb now has the same amount of wins in his two-year tenure at Lumpkin as the previous four head coaches combined. Webb said he was most excited for his senior class who stayed persistent despite the struggles of their underclassmen years.
“I’m so happy for those kids,” he said. “It’s hard to fathom the fact that they were 0-10, but they never quit. They were resilient. They kept coming back to work. I’m sure there were guys that quit along the way but 13 guys were 0-10 as freshmen and are still playing today because they never quit.”
Most importantly for Webb, the team now has the opportunity to put in more hard work over Thanksgiving break, in preparation of its quarterfinal bout with Savannah Christian Preparatory School.
“I’m looking forward to practicing on Thanksgiving because if you’re practicing on Thanksgiving you have a special team, so I look forward to celebrating that moment with the team.”