The Cartersville Purple Hurricanes rallied from 14 points down in the first quarter to defeat the Ware County Gators 34-31 on Friday night to advance in the semi-finals of the GHSA Class 5A playoffs.
Thomas Castellanos proved to be a tough quarterback to contain for the Cartersville defense. The dual-threat quarterback scored the game’s first two touchdowns of the game – both in the first quarter. While the Ware County offense was rolling, the Cartersville offense could not find much traction as it had two three-and-outs and an interception in its opening three drives.
In the second quarter, the Cartersville offense began to roll. Quante Jennings capped off a 91-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown run with 2:23 left in the opening half. Then Castellanos fumbled the ball and Cartersville recovered just outside of the Gator 20-yard line. Three plays later, Carlos Del Rio-Wilson scored on an 8-yard rush to tie the game at 14. With just 80 seconds left in the first half, Ware County seemed destined to take the tie into the half. The arm – and legs – of Castellanos proved otherwise as he marched the offense deep into Cartersville territory, but had to settle for a 29-yard field goal as time expired.
With Ware County receiving the ball first in the third quarter, everyone knew the opening drive would be a big one. The first play was intercepted by the Hurricane defense. The next play was a 46-yard touchdown from Del Rio-Wilson to Collin Fletcher. A 14-point deficit had turned into a 20-17 Purple Hurricane lead. Cartersville attempted an onside kick, but Ware County recovered. The Gators scored quickly on a 30-yard pass from Castellanos to Cartervious Norton to once again regain the lead 24-20. In just 80 seconds, the teams exchanged touchdowns but Cartersville missed its PAT.
On its next drive, Cartersville was aided by some Ware County penalties as Jennings capped off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. It appeared that a back-and-forth affair was going to define the rest of the game and set up a thriller in Waycross, Georgia.
Ware County continued to answer every Cartersville punch with one that hit just as hard. Castellanos, once again, found the end zone to cap a 69-yard drive and regain the Gator lead at 31-27. The third quarter would end with that score and after 36 minutes of game time, very little had been decided. It seemed inevitable that the last team to score would win.
Cartersville struck first in the fourth quarter, as Jennings found the end zone for the third time in the contest to give the Canes a 34-31 lead. It was Ware County that would blink first. Facing a 4th and 11 at the Cartersville 31-yard line, the Gators attempted to go for the first down instead of kicking a field goal that would tie the game. Cartersville had a chance to deliver a big blow with another touchdown to make it a two-score lead with about half the quarter to play. Unfortunately for those in purple, the Hurricanes offense went three-and-out and punted the ball away.
Ware County was unable to capitalize on the punt and, instead, threw an interception with just under three minutes left in the game. Again, a first down would all but seal advancing into the Final Four.
But nothing about this game had been easy and the final three minutes were to be just as exciting as the first 45. Cartersville was unable to get a first down and was forced to punt the ball away. The final Ware County drive would determine the football game. Ware County gained yards, but the backup quarterback was unable to move the ball forward for the Gators and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by the Cartersville defense. After a 14-point deficit, Cartersville had prevailed.
Cartersville will host the semi-final game next Friday night against the Coffee Trojans at Weinman Stadium with kickoff set for 7:30. Early projections from Calpreps.com give Cartersville the edge and winning by a score of 27-26. You can hear all of the action on WBHF with pregame coverage beginning at 6:00.