DALZELL -- Two teams. Three spots. Plenty of potential playoff scenarios.
That was the backdrop entering play on Friday as Lakewood High School journeyed to Donald L. Crolley Memorial Stadium to challenge Sumter School District rival Crestwood with an opportunity to earn a Region VI-4A playoff spot.
While the Gators had to win and hope that a number of tiebreakers fell their way to get in, Crestwood simply had to win to claim the region's No. 3 seed.
The Knights did just that as Anthony Bradley passed for three touchdowns and ran for two more in a 40-14 Crestwood win that ended Lakewood's season.
"The biggest objective tonight was to come out and win," said Crestwood head coach Roosevelt Nelson, who is taking the Knights to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. "Win, play a good, clean game, play physical on all three phases, make plays and I think we did that, for the most part. We had a little botch down there with the extra-point deal so we need to get that cleaned up, but a lot of guys were able to get in and play and get experience."
Bad snaps contributed to trouble on three Crestwood conversion attempts. Gavyn Zimmerman missed on one, never got the kick off on one and had another attempt blocked.
While Nelson has overcome adversity to bring his program to this point, Lakewood head coach Larry Cornelius is in the early stages of attempting to create a similar turnaround with a Gator program that entered this season with 19 losses in its last 20 games. The Gators won their first two under Cornelius but then closed with an 8-game losing streak that included a 14-12 region loss at Lugoff-Elgin and a 38-35 loss at home to Darlington, which earned the No.4 playoff seed by virtue of that win over Lakewood.
"First off, I want to say congratulations to Coach Nelson and Crestwood for making the playoffs," Cornelius said. "They played a great game tonight, they stepped on the gas and we just didn't execute. We've got to do a better job of that. As far as the season is concerned, yes, we made improvements. Like anything, we started off hot (winning the first two games), but it's always going to get worse before it gets better. We had a lot of holds, that's part of the maturation process.
"It takes several years to create a program. You're not going to do it in a matter of months. That's what I've been saying over and over and over. We've had plenty of chances to win games (including a 7-point loss at Manning and an 8-point loss at Colleton County) but we came up just a little bit short."
The game started slowly for both teams as Lakewood managed two first downs in its first two possessions before punting the ball away both times. The Gator defense held for a 3-and-out on Crestwood's opening possession, but the Knights cranked up their offense on the next series.
Four consecutive first downs -- on a 33-yard pass from Bradley to Joshua Simon, an 11-yard Damontae Furman run and passes of 14 and 11 yards to Datrick Neal -- quickly moved the ball from the Crestwood 26 to Lakewood's 5. Bradley then ran for four yards to the 1 and took it in on the next play, giving the Knights a 7-0 lead after Gavyn Zimmerman's PAT kick.
Lakewood answered on its next drive, capitalizing on a 26-yard kickoff return from Tyrek Brown that put the ball at the Crestwood 46. Eight plays later, Trevon Cowell bounced off a few missed tackles and strolled into the end zone from 23 yards out, with Thomas Burkott's PAT kick tying the score, 7-7, at the 11:23 mark of the second quarter.
That would prove to be the high mark of the night for Lakewood as Crestwood added 1-yard scoring runs from Anthony Bradley and Maleeke Bradley for a 20-7 halftime lead. Crestwood took a 40-7 lead as Anthony Bradley completed a 45-yard scoring pass to Montrell White and added connections of 32 and 15 yards to Simon, who also hauled in a 2-point conversion pass after White's score.
The Gators answered that last Crestwood score with one of their own, taking eight plays to go 71 yards. The big play was a 45-yard scamper by Richardson, with a 15-yard facemask penalty advancing the ball to the 13. It took five plays from there, including a 4-yard run by Cowell to the 3 that was just enough to convert on fourth down. Richardson passed to Quentin Hodge on the next play to close out the scoring.
While disappointed that his team came up short of a playoff bid, Cornelius pointed to some statistics that illustrated the strides made by the Gators this season.
"We tripled our scoring offensively over last year, I believe we have now over 3,000 yards offense this year, but the one stat that we're missing is that big stat in the W-L column," Cornelius said. "That's what we work on for 2018. But I want to congratulate these seniors... I'm their third coach in four years. That's got to be awfully difficult on these kids. Each coach brings a different mindset, different personality, so for them to be out here for four years and suck it up and try to adapt to the coach, I've got to commend my seniors for that. They've built the foundation for the future."
Nelson said the improvement is evident for Lakewood, but he was also proud of his seniors for overcoming adversity to create positive change.
"Coach Cornelius has got those guys going in the right direction. I see a big improvement over there at Lakewood High School, but hats off to us tonight," Nelson said as his team closed a 5-5 and 2-2 regular season. "This senior class saw it through some tough times. A couple of guys started with them along the way, didn't make it, but I'm proud of my guys. I'm proud of my team, proud of my coaching staff, proud of my leadership at Crestwood High School and the principal and the athletic director for supporting us along the way. We've got back-to-back playoff appearances and we're excited about that."