By Gabriel Stovall
ATLANTA, Ga. — Even when it looked like an offensive shootout, the Stockbridge Tigers proved that defense is still their calling card.
A late interception by Ryan Massey and an earlier pick six right before halftime by first-year starter Mike Price were probably the two plays of the game for a matchup filled with big plays on both sides of the ball.
Massey’s defensive snag came after first year starting quarterback Kenderick Duncan’s second second half touchdown gave No. 2 Stockbridge the ball with less than a minute remaining, allowing the Tigers to run out the clock and escape Lakewood Stadium with a 35-34 win over Mays.
The victory slightly avenged a 30-15 Stockbridge loss to the Raiders back in the 2014 Class AAAAA semifinals. But tonight’s win wasn’t as much about revenge as it was grabbing some early season momentum to a young squad.
“We’re always happy to get the win, no matter how it looks,” Whitley said. “The good thing is we won, and now we can show the kids on film some of the things we’ve talked about that we can’t do in order to be a great team.”
The game was dubbed the Inner City Classic, and it certainly lived up to its ‘classic’ moniker. And Price’s interception and score when Stockbridge was trailing 13-7 seemed to be the needed Stockbridge momentum shifter.
“On that play, Coach (Boyd) called the right coverage, I was in my right zone,” Price said. “The other safety knocked it up, and I was there to get the pick. And once I got my hands on it, all I saw was the end zone, so I had to put my team on my back and take us there.”
After Price’s pick six gave Stockbridge a 14-13 lead going into halftime, it looked like a defensive battle would ensue for the duration of the game. Both teams opened the second half with failed drives before Mays quarterback Bardenie Phillips found Jamarcus McCoy for an eight-yard touchdown pass with eight minutes left in the third. A two-point conversion gave Mays a 21-14 lead.
Five minutes later, and after a Stockbridge defensive stand, quarterback Duncan pushed his way into the end zone from eight yards out, tying the score at 21 at around the four minute mark.
Mays continued the tit-for-tat by marching down the field on an 81-yard drive that ended in Phillips finding Amir Abdur-Rhaman for a two yard pitch-and-catch to give Mays a 28-21 advantage.
The defenses would stiffen for the rest of the third quarter and much of the fourth until Stockbridge senior Jalen Holston found daylight and bolted 89 yards for a touchdown to tie the score at 28 with 9:05 left in the game.
Mays’ response — a four yard rushing touchdown from Armis Stokes at the 6:39 mark of the fourth quarter — seemed like a potential nail in the coffin for Stockbridge, but two possessions later, Duncan would strike again.
This Duncan touchdown — a 15-yard scamper on a quarterback keeper with 2:22 left in regulation — would actually turn out to be the deciding score for Stockbridge, while also serving as more validity for the confidence Whitley has expressed in his first-year senior starter since the off season.
“I think (Kenderick) did great,” Whitley said. “It’s hist first year starting quarterback for us, but last year he started at safety. With us at Stockbridge, we take pride in building our kids throughout the system, and he’s one of those guys who’s been with us since the ninth grade and worked his way up and waited for his opportunity.”
Whitley said he and his team couldn’t feel comfortable about escaping with a “W,” just yet, given the high scoring nature of the second half. So it wasn’t until Massey stepped in front of a Phillips pass with 51 seconds left that Whitley and company felt they could breathe again.
“Those two picks (by Price and Massey) were really big for us,” he said. “It really looked like the kind of game to where whoever scored last was probably going to win. But this was big for us, particularly our offensive line, our defense, Mike (Price). All of those guys are first year starters, and they had to grow up fast for us tonight. They know the system, but things move so much faster on Friday or Saturday nights.”
For Price, the timely big plays showed him glimpses of his team’s defensive potential, despite giving up a bunch of yards Saturday night.
“Even though (Mays’) offense had success and our offense fumbled toward the end, we just said as a defense we weren’t going to let this game get away,” Price said. “And that’s when Ryan came up with the big pick.”
After the final kneel downs, Whitley said he expressed pride in his team’s tenacity to pull out a tough win, but also issued a word of caution.
“We did an excellent job in keeping away one of the traditionally best teams in the state as far as Atlanta Public Schools,” Whitley said. “If you follow us, you know we like to schedule quality opponents to get us ready for region games. Even if we didn’t win this one it would still show us where we have to improve. And I told my guys we definitely need to get better.”
Stockbridge will get its chance, starting next week when it travels to Lovejoy and then Dutchtown the week after. Then a three game stretch against a much improved Ola squad, Locust Grove and a Woodland team that gave Class AAAAAA No. 4 Valdosta all it wanted for about three quarters.
Price said he knows his team — particularly his defense — will be ready for the challenge.
“Coach Whit told us he was really proud of us, but we know we gotta still work hard, because there are other teams coming who are way harder than what we faced tonight,” Price said. “But we’ve got a new defensive coordinator in Coach Boyd, and he’s been working with us, and we feel we can turn into a pretty good defense before it’s all done.”