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It took Lakewood head football coach Larry Cornelius 799 days to win his first region game with the Gators. He only needed seven days to win his second.
The Gators traveled to Donald L. Crolley Stadium and beat Crestwood 20-7 on Friday night in a game they needed to win by 12 points or more to secure a spot in the playoffs. They won by 13.
With the Gators clinging to a 14-7 lead, senior linebacker Amari Martin intercepted a pass from Crestwood quarterback Clayton Feagin and returned the ball 70 yards for a touchdown with just 48 seconds left. The interception sealed the victory and gave Lakewood the crucial points they needed to secure a playoff spot for the first time in Cornelius' tenure.
"The whole defense played lights out," said Cornelius. "The only touchdown we gave up, we put the defense in a horrible situation on that kick return. Other than that, our defense played lights outs, and that's why we won the game tonight."
Crestwood began the game with a bit of trickery, successfully converting an onside kick to steal the opening possession. The Knights weren't able to capitalize, however, and quickly punted to the Gators.
"We saw something on film and we tried to take advantage of it," said Crestwood head coach Roosevelt Nelson, whose team fell to 4-5 on the season and 2-3 in region play.
Lakewood marched right down the field and put seven points on the board after a pair of catches by sophomore James Wright. First, Wright hauled in a 48-yard reception, and then found the end zone moments later on a 10-yard touchdown reception from Cody Windham to put the Gators ahead 7-0.
The Knights answered quickly, however, after Montrell White took the ensuing kickoff 60 yards to give Crestwood excellent field position at the Lakewood 18 yard line.
White then took the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7-7 with 5:49 remaining in the first quarter.
The score remained tied all the way until the early moments of the 4th quarter when Lakewood junior running back James Wright scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to cap off a 53-yard drive and pull ahead 14-7.
The Knights thought they had tied the game just a couple of minutes later after Quinton Harrison returned a Lakewood punt for a touchdown, but the score was called back because of a holding penalty.
"I thought the defensive coaches had an awesome game plan coming in," said Cornelius. "Hats off to the defensive players and defensive coaches. I thought Crestwood defended us pretty good, and they made some good adjustments on us."
Crestwood gave themselves another opportunity to tie late in the fourth quarter when it looked like the Gators were all set to put the game away. Crestwood defensive back Aaron Hill came up with a crucial interception in the end zone and then returned the ball to midfield to give the Knights one last chance with 1:29 to play.
That's when Martin came up with his game-sealing interception returned for a touchdown.
"That was huge," said Cornelius. "All week long we just told the players all they had to do was win. We [the coaches] knew the point situation, but we didn't want the kids to be thinking about that during the game. In the kids mind they were thinking we just had to stop them to win the game, but in reality we needed that, big time [to secure a playoff spot]."
"We were short-handed and our players battled," said Nelson. "We had three guys in concussion protocol, one sprained knee, and we lost two starting offensive linemen on the first drive of the game. So, we were down six starters. Hats off to Lakewood. They made a couple more plays than us, and they won by the amount of points they had to win by."
The win guarantees a playoff spot for Lakewood, but puts Crestwood at the mercy of receiving an at-large bid for the second season in a row. For the Gators, the victory validates all of the close, competitive losses they've suffered this season.
"This year's team is more than capable," said Cornelius. "We've proven that; we've been so close. Lower Richland won the region and we lost to them by just five points. We played [region foe] O-W tough, so we knew we had it in us. It was just a matter of putting it all together. I wish we could've put it together a little early in the season but, with their backs against the wall these kids stepped up."
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