ATLANTA - In the grand scheme of things, kicking a field goal down 38 points is a footnote in a lopsided football game. For the Ridgeland Panthers, those three points - and the seven that later followed it - represented more than window dressing in Saturday's 45-10 championship loss to Sandy Creek.
The second-half effort showed the fight and resiliency of a team that does more than preach the word "family," according to coach Mark Mariakis.
"At halftime [with Ridgeland down 31-0] I told them, 'When you're a family, you're always a family and you never go back on your family, and you don't hurt your family's feelings and you always fight for your family, " Mariakis said. "Let's just play a football game and see what happens, but don't ruin a season by having an emotional letdown.
"I didn't expect them to get down. They've gone through adversity all year long, but they've always come back and, hey, we're in the state championship football game. What more can you say?"
Ridgeland ended its breakthrough season at 13-2 after being run over, run around and just plain outrun in a first half in which Sandy Creek outgained the Panthers 286 yards to 108. Their shot at shocking a team going for its fourth state title in six years was over, and now it was all about being able to look at each other in the locker room after the game and not turning away.
Though the game was lost, respect wasn't.
"Those guys mean everything to me," senior captain Daniel Johnson said, peering over his shoulder while holding the runner-up trophy, "and I can go home knowing we left everything on the field. I mean, we did it at the Georgia Dome, and it's so hard to just get here. That was a heck of a ball team over there -- maybe the best in the entire state regardless of classifications -- but we played our hearts out."
Senior safety and wingback Vonn Bell, who played his final high school game with the likes of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Alabama boss Nick Saban in attendance to watch him, will soon make his college decision between those two powers and Tennessee.
After Saturday's game, though, the super prospect didn't want to talk recruiting. Through hard-earned tears he managed a smile as he talked about scoring a touchdown in the final minutes and what that moment meant to him.
"Getting that last touchdown was fun -- a good way to go out and something special to share with my teammates," said Bell, who caught a 38-yard scoring pass from fellow senior Darrell Bridges. "We came out 0-0 in the second half and played as hard as we could. God blessed this season and this family behind me."
Though Mariakis didn't hear his star's words, he no doubt would have approved.
"It's a special group," the coach said before walking off the Georgia Dome field. "These seniors have done wonders for our community; they'll never really know just how much. As far as losing a ballgame? There will be other ballgames, but never a team like this."