Ridgeland is Domeward bound.
Despite facing a team steeped in tradition and long on playoff experience, it was Ridgeland that fought back and found a way to earn a trip to Georgia's Class AAAA football state championship game with a thrilling 28-27 victory Friday over second-ranked Marist.
"Considering what was on the line, I don't know that I've ever been a part of a more exciting game," said Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis, whose program had not gotten past the second round before this season. "That's what a semifinal game is supposed to be like.
After a gutty 10-play, 77-yard drive in the game's final three minutes to take the lead, the Panthers' fate rested on the right foot of Marist junior kicker Fletcher Malloy. His 34-yard field-goal attempt hit the right upright and bounced back to the turf as the buzzer sounded, sending the players on the Ridgeland sideline sprinting into one massive celebratory hug.
"I don't even know how to describe what just happened," said Ridgeland senior running back Darrell Bridges. "I can't even explain how I'm feeling, other than just, wow!"
In a game of big plays, and with several college scouts on the sidelines to scout the talent, Bridges was the difference. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder ran 21 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns and completed all three of his passes for 110 yards and two other TDs.
His first TD pass was a 57-yard bomb to Vonn Bell on the opening series of the second half, tying the game at 14, and one of his scoring runs covered 89 yards. He punctuated it with a broken tackle near the line, then lowered his shoulder to flatten a defensive back before continuing on his way to even the score at 21.
Marist countered with a 11-play, 71-yard scoring drive to regain the lead with 3:10 remaining, but Thomas Andrews' extra-point attempt was blocked by Sharone Porter.
That set up the Panthers to answer with their own length-of-the-field scoring drive, kept alive by a 7-yard Bridges run on fourth-and-2 and capped by Bridges' 24-yard TD pass to Shaqualm McCoy with 36 seconds remaining.
Marist drove right back down the field, covering 48 yards to move the ball to the Panthers' 17 with five seconds remaining. But Malloy's kick began tailing off to the right as it neared the goal post and caught just enough of the inside of the pole to bounce back onto the field.
"We hadn't pulled that fullback sweep pass out of the bag all year, but that trick worked three times tonight," Bridges said. "It was actually a screw-up, because we were supposed to go to the right, but I saw our receivers going to the left so we changed it right as the play started.
"Just unbelievable. An amazing game."