The North Tattnall (NT) Warriors, made the short journey to Claxton to face the Claxton Middle School Tigers on Wednesday, August 31, 2022, for what would probably be their last contest in Claxton’s historic Pecan Grove, a site where many tension-filled, exciting contests have been played over the years.
The 2022 edition of the North Tattnall and Claxton rivalry was no exception. The game, full of big plays and big hits, came down to the last minute of the contest. Both teams, undefeated, sported a 1-0 record, as Claxton won their opening game against Metter 20-14, and North Tattnall prevailed against South Tattnall 22-12.
On the opening kickoff, a little Pecan Grove voodoo was in order. The fine kick by Brian Baltizar flustered the NT return team, and when the dust had cleared, the white-clad Warriors had the ball at their one-yard line. After the kick off, Henrion Pridgeon, JJ Ansell, and Demetrius Starnes gave Sion Nichols running room to punch out a hard-won first down. The Warriors, stymied by an aggressive Claxton corps of defenders, went to the air on third down, but pressure on the QB resulted in an incomplete pass. Elijah Harton, with a good long snap from Keyon Calhoun, made a 38-yard punt down the home sideline, with Calhoun making the stop on the return. Although Harton, Pridgeon, and Nichols all had strong defensive plays, soon DJ Williams broke free to score a touchdown with two minutes left in the first quarter. Calhoun blocked the attempted kick for the extra point, a play that would become crucial at the end of the game. Claxton was ahead, 6-0.
Again, Baltizar put a spell on the football when he kicked it where the returners could not get a quick handle on it, so NT had poor field position at its own ten. The young Warriors, however, grew up a bit on this possession, driving the ball 90 yards for their first touchdown. Grinding out tough yardage between the tackles, Nichols, Harton, and Calhoun forced the defense to play honestly. Facing a third and long, Lincoln Shuman, quarterback, and Nichols and Calhoun made excellent fakes to force the defensive secondary forward. Shuman then threaded the needle to pass the ball to Pridgeon, and Pridgeon was able to shake off a tackler to advance the ball 31 yards to midfield. From there, Matthew Waters, Kenley Davis, and Cory Steedley helped Calhoun, Harton, and Nichols move the ball literally into the shadow of the goalposts. Shuman, a sure hand with the football, found Calhoun in the flat on the goal line for a ten-yard TD pass. Harton calmly glided into the end zone, after winning a one-on-one situation for the two-point conversion, to give NT the lead, 8-6, with about 3 minutes left in the half.
After a well-placed kick by Michael Bonilla, the dark-jerseyed Tigers moved the ball to midfield. Pridgeon and Ansell patrolled the line of scrimmage, narrowing the holes in the line. Collins Shuman, Akeem Jinks, and Manuel Gonzalez defended the edge. After a holding call, Claxton punted. Harton dropped deep, drove to the hash, then flashed down the visiting sidelines, bringing the Warrior crowd to their feet, as he made it to the end zone on a 75-yard punt return, the longest in 25 years or more of NT football. Despite the long return, Harton remained in the game for the two-point conversion, and found space in the end zone. Shuman delivered the ball on time to Harton that gave NT a 16-6 lead with little time left in the half. Bonilla’s kickoff was, again, well-placed, and the defense held until the half.
In the second half, the hot, humid conditions began to take a toll on both teams. After Bonilla drove the ball inside the 15-yard line, Joshua Tillman made an important tackle, stopping the return at the 40-yard line. Claxton’s offense, dangerous in its speed and determination, could not string together first downs, as Calhoun, Ansell, and Jovany Delgado, among others on the defense, made enough plays to force a punt. Harton then took another punt into Tiger territory. Calhoun’s power runs behind Ansell and Starnes began to roll. When Calhoun was pushed out of bounds at the Claxton five, the game seemed to be turning. But…the Pecan Grove! Strange things happen when a good team responds to their home field. The Tigers rose up and stopped the Warriors, despite tough runs by Nichols and Calhoun. The fourth-down pass was intercepted, and the Tigers took over at their 20 with about one quarter left in the game.
Slowly, but surely, the black-clad team moved the ball, around left end, then right end, never gaining more than 15 yards, but only being slowed down by exchange fumbles or plays by the line or the linebackers. Both Shumans, Ansell, Pridgeon, Harton, Nichols, and the rest of the defense made plays. It was not enough. Then, Williams swept around end for a 12-yard TD, and briefly went down with cramps, happy knowing he had given his team a chance. The somewhat stunned Warriors did not make the play on the try for point, as Ventrel Holmes rushed into the end zone off tackle. Suddenly, NT only led, 16-14.
Then the shadows of the pecan trees made their presence known again. After a brilliant high kick by Baltizar, which the NT receivers could not track down, Claxton recovered the football at NT’s 30 with a chance to win. Energized by the quick change in fortune, the Tigers gained about six yards on first down, and the clock, from the North Tattnall point of view, seemed not to move at all. On second down with about a minute remaining, the Tiger wingback avoided several arm tackles and headed for the NT’s end zone. The game truly hung in the balance.
After J’sai Cosper, among others, slowed but did not stop the runner, Pridgeon swooped down the line away from the play and bear hugged the back as he attempted to break free. Time seemed to slow down. From the sideline, there were too many bodies to see clearly. Yet, even though Pridgeon appeared to have stopped a touchdown, Claxton would possess the ball around the ten with a first down and a time out left to take. Things appeared dim for the Warriors, but as time speeded back up, Demetrius Starnes hit the ball carrier underneath Pridgeon’s grip and knocked the ball out. Collins Shuman curled around the ball, and the two sides of the field exchanged euphoria for despair and vice versa.
The Warriors had the ball.
The remaining seconds were still tense, as the Tigers desperately blitzed and tackled to turn the tide of the game back upon itself. And the trees, as always, still stood sentinel in the background. But with Calhoun, Harton, and Nichols, led by Shuman, followed the narrow lanes opened by the white-clad line and made two first downs, with an outside run by Harton and two off-tackle plays by Calhoun being the crucial plays.
The final stood, 16-14, with the Warriors victorious over a game Tiger squad.
The trees still remain, at least for a while.
The Warriors will play the always tough Toombs County Bullpups in the Pit next Thursday. The players and coaches would like to thank the cheerleaders, the teachers, parents, and fans for their great support at the Pecan Grove, and would like to invite everyone to come and support the Warriors for their quest for a winning season Thursday, September 8, in the Pit in Lyons. Game time is 5 p.m., and admission is $5.