Star: Washington County tailback Melvin Hill had three touchdowns, including a 99-yard punt return, in a 37-0 win.
Up next: WACO will play Buford in the Class AAA final next Friday. Ringgold ended its most successful season ever at 11-3.
SANDERSVILLE, Ga. - That Ringgold High School's magical football season came to an end Friday night was not what Dakota Baer will remember in the days ahead. It's the way the Tigers went down fighting that will stick with the senior linebacker.
Despite falling 37-0 to third-ranked Washington County (13-0) in the GHSA Class AAA semifinals at the place known as "The House of Pain," Baer and his teammates walked off the famed field with a certain sense that they belonged.
"I will always remember how, no matter how the score was, we never backed down, not just tonight but the whole season," said Baer, who was in on at least a dozen tackles and whose unit shut out the Golden Hawks in the second half. "I love this team and the guys on it. Washington County has a lot of athletes, for sure, and they deserve the win, but they know we were here."
Ringgold, its most successful season in school history ending at 11-3, gave up three big scoring plays in the nightmarish opening half and, with senior star quarterback Slade Dale considerably slowed with a leg injury suffered last week, could not get its offense untracked.
"Slade's injury altered our game plan tremendously, and without his scrambling ability they were able to box us in," Ringgold coach Robert Akins said. "But I'm so proud of the kids for playing the way they did in the second half. In fact, our defense held them in check except for the big plays. They are a very fast team and we knew they could hit big ones if we didn't wrap up."
WACO, averaging 53 points per game and more than 500 total yards, was held to 261 rushing, but three big plays were the difference. The first, after the Tigers had forced a turnover on downs at midfield, came on the Hawks' first play following a punt. Quarterback A.J. Gray faked a quick screen and handed the ball off to tailback Melvin Hill on a draw. Hill raced around left end untouched 59 yards for a 6-0 lead. Gray then caught the Tigers sleeping on the conversion with a quick pass to Chris Edwards for an 8-0 lead.
After another Ringgold punt, Gray used play action to freeze the Ringgold defense before lofting a perfect strike to D.J. Sanders, who went 70 yards on the Golden Hawks' second play and a 15-0 lead.
"The running game didn't do as much damage, but that pass was the big blow," Akins said. "We were concentrating so much on the run and having to play man-to-man in the secondary, and they just made a great play."
Ringgold, though, had two scoring chances in the first five minutes of the second quarter. The confident Golden Hawks were stuffed on a fourth-and-2 run, with Baer picking up and planting Hill at the WACO 36. D.L. Goins and Kile Sholl ripped off 10- and 12-yard gains, but on fourth-and-2 from the 7, Goins was stopped a yard short.
The Tigers got it right back on Garrett Yates' interception at the WACO 31, but three plays later Dale threw a pickoff of his own, the ball returned into Ringgold territory. Six plays later the cat-quick Hill (118 yards on 17 carries), went around left end for a touchdown and Gray completed another two-point conversion pass for a 23-0 lead.
The back-breaker came moments later when, after another Ringgold three-and-out, Hill fielded, then dropped the ensuing punt at the 1. Seemingly hemmed in on the sideline, he escaped the first wave of Tigers and then turned on the jets for a 99-yard score.
Dale, who was held to 34 yards on five carries and 21 yards passing, did not use his injury as an excuse.
"I was good enough to be out there," he said. "I really don't want to talk about the game, but I just love this team. We made history and I will never forget a moment with my brothers. They were a very fast defense, but that's not the big story here. This team will always be very special to me."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6296.