by Robert Naddra
Moments after Tyler White’s fourth-down pass dropped to the turf in the end zone, several St. Pius players knelt down and held their helmets in disbelief. Others stared into the night, choking back sobs, tears welling in their eyes.
The 21-14 overtime loss to Peach County in the third round of the Class AAA state football playoffs on Nov. 27 brought an end to the Golden Lions’ season. But it didn’t diminish the special nature of coach Paul Standard’s ninth season as head coach.
At 12-1, the Golden Lions equaled the most wins in school history. The team also went undefeated in the regular season and won a home playoff game for the first time since 1967.
Huddling with his players on the field after the game, Standard sent his team home with a message.
“You’re going to take away things from this that will help you later in life,” he said. “You seniors, we’re going to talk about you and what you accomplished. For the rest of you, you have a standard to uphold because of this senior class.”
Peach County quarterback Patrick Taylor scored on a 2-yard run in overtime to give the Trojans a 21-14 lead. St. Pius could not move the ball on its possession, and White threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-long.
St. Pius, the lone DeKalb County team to advance to the third round of the playoffs, started strong with a touchdown on the fourth play of the game. George Kennedy, who rushed for 99 yards, scored on a 57-yard run to give the Golden Lions a 7-0 lead.
A few minutes later, Peach County benefitted from a long punt return then scored on a 29-yard run by Travis Richmond. St. Pius blocked the extra point to preserve a 7-6 lead. St. Pius kept the lead until LaBrandon Johnson gave Peach a 14-7 lead (after a two-point conversion) late in the third quarter.
St. Pius tied the game 14-14 on a 2-yard run by Cole Moon with 10:19 to play in the game. The Golden Lions let several scoring opportunities slip away, including fumbling at the Peach County 28-yard line with less than four minutes to play. The Golden Lions missed two field goals (41 and 45 yards) and fumbled the ball away twice.
“We didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had,” Standard said. “We had two missed field goals, and we would have had at least one touchdown, but we had turnovers down deep. It was a night of missed opportunities.”
During a quarter-and-a-half stretch from the middle of the second quarter to the beginning of the fourth, St. Pius held the ball for 15 out of 18 minutes but could not score. The Golden Lions missed a field goal and fumbled during that stretch.
“I’m proud of how the kids laid everything on the line,” Standard said. “They’ve done the coaching staff proud.”
After the game, the 26 seniors one by one exchanged handshakes and hugs with Standard. With underclassmen, coaches, fans and family forming a narrow walkway, the seniors kept with tradition and walked through the crowd across the field toward the bleachers.
“When you have such a close football family, if you don’t win them all, which we haven’t, it’s hard when it comes to an abrupt end,” Standard said. “It’s tough because we’re all very close to our players. They give so much to this program.”