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SPORTS RECAP: Winning feeling – Raiders force five turnovers, drive for pair of Stanley TDs in second quarter to hold off Dodge, win in Burdette's debut

The Courier Herald – August 30, 2022

   EASTMAN – In hindsight, a lot more probably went wrong than went right for West Laurens in its season opener Friday night. But the Raiders found a way to fight through weariness, injuries, some offensive struggles and a few mistakes to defeat Dodge County 14-12 and clinch a first career victory for their new head coach. 
   Kip Burdette, a winner in his regular-season debut, emerged from the postgame huddle and a row of handshakes clutching a game ball that’ll enter the trophy case as a memento of the night. And, years down the road, it'll probably also remind of an adage all head coaches become familiar with, some luckily sooner than later, that any win, no matter how imperfect, counts the same as all the rest. 
   And in your first week of a season, limping to the finish line and surviving setbacks just long enough to reach over can often feel as good as winning the Super Bowl. 
   “A win’s really tough,” Burdette said. “I don’t care if we win by one, or we win by 43, it doesn’t matter. A win’s a win, and we’re gonna celebrate those wins.” 
   Raider quarterback Tay Stanley, also staging a scrapbook night in his first start behind center, scored both his team's touchdowns on its only two sustained drives of the game in the second quarter. The defense took care of the rest, forcing five turnovers – two interceptions and three fumbles – and holding Dodge without points on five out of six second-half drives, three of them that reached plus territory. 
   The Indians, for their part, tripped themselves up on a routine basis. Besides the giveaways, they did in progress with penalties and special teams mishaps that ran the length of the game, despite out-gaining the Raiders in total yardage 250-204. 
   Dodge County’s bid to tie the score on its second touchdown – the consequence of a bad West Laurens punt snap that gave them possession with goal to go early in the third quarter – failed after a two-point try. Their original PAT run on a Lamarie Mitchell jet sweep found the goal line, but was voided thanks to an obvious hold just off the tackle that backed them up a ways for the re-try. 
   Duke Johnson’s lunge for the pylon on a scramble was just short, with four Raider defenders in the area, and Mark Fordham the one to force him out of bounds a yard or two shy to keep the 14-12 lead. 
   The earlier try kick sailed wide for Dodge after Johnson hooked up with Lamarie Mitchell, on a 38-yard broken tackle catch-and-run to the endzone in the first quarter to wrap up their third possession, and only true scoring drive of the night. Johnson had a hand in both touchdowns, but also in three of the five turnovers.  
   The Indians’ first possession of the night ended on a third-down interception by Johnny Williams, and the second on a post-catch fumble that his hit jolted from the hands of Mitchell, and Ja'Torian Parker recovered. But West Laurens wasn't able to do much with either hospitable offering of free possession and plus field position. 
   The Raiders, driving to answer the opening Dodge touchdown early in the second, had their own issue on an errant snap that Jaboree Graham slid to rake in before Stanley could corral it in the backfield. Though the giveaway cost West a scoring opportunity – with their best drive so far approaching the red zone – it would be their only turnover.  
   The Raiders, however, survived a good bit of other trouble, as their offense hit a second-half dry spell that coincided with injuries and cramps for several main starters. Among the casualties were starting backs Johnny Williams and Zane Golphin, who both exited in the third quarter, and starting tackle Da’Jy’Quan Jackson in the fourth, none to return. 
   Freshmen and sophomores, at running back and on the Raiders’ two punt return assignments, had to fill in the gaps. And though synchronicity issues made first downs scarce (their only two advances to plus territory in the half were by default after turnovers), they avoided any major mistakes. 
   “I just told the guys (after the game), we’ve gotta get in better shape,” Burdette said. “We had kids dropping out left and right with cramps, and fatigue, some small injuries, some major injuries. All in all, we fought. Didn’t matter who went out there, freshmen, sophomores, whoever. We kept fighting. I commended the guys on being able to fight through adversity. That was one of the things that worried me. How would we do when we got down and the chips got down on us a little bit? We kept fighting, we kept plugging, and we came away, we got a good defensive stop right there at the end to win it.” 
    The defense, on top of forcing a pair of additional fumbles and nearly taking away two more, held twice from deep in its own territory to close the fourth quarter. Much of that, in keeping with a theme of the season to date, stemmed from self-destructive mistakes by Dodge County. 
   Both the Indians’ would-be drives to take the lead had some steam going before short-circuiting mistakes. After a Mitchell run to get within four of the stick on fourth down, a Dodge false start (from the looks of it, on a false play intended to bait the defense into jumping) backed the Indians up into an obligatory punt. 
   West Laurens’ three-and-out, the ball never escaping its own red zone but succeeding in its charge of the last two opposing timeouts, put the ball back in Dodge hands after a short punt skipped out of bounds at the Raider 41. 
   The Indians were no more creative than they needed to be to get the ball moving, as Johnson plowed up the middle on a pair of lead draws to pick up 10 and a first, then five. But they went to the air on their second-and-five, and Johnson’s swing-out pass was thrown as a lateral behind slot receiver Mason Yeomans and lost over the shoulder, his recovery carrying a loss of five. The next snap went between the legs of the Dodge QB, and was covered up to salvage a fourth and 17. 
   Johnson got a clean drop on the do-or-die play, but had nowhere to throw downfield, and pulled the ball down just ahead of a sack by Jamir Ussery, who crossed inside of a whiff block to force a short scramble. Johnson’s route took him right into oncoming defenders Jaydon Jackson and Jordan Spencer, who knocked him down after a gain of only four to seal the win. 
   The West Laurens front-3, down a usual man in the injured Isaiah Austin, relied on Ussery and Jackson, along with state weight champs Kiandre Fortson and Jaden Williams, to hold down the point of attack. The quartet combined for a dozen and a half tackles, one for loss. 
   “Those front guys, they just play so doggone hard,” Burdette said. “None of them are physically imposing. A couple of them are strong. But they still don’t look like your division 1 linemen. They play so dadgum hard. They’re in it every play.” 
   West Laurens was able to cash in just one of the five turnovers for a touchdown, that one directly after a scoring drive of around 65 yards that involved three different third down conversions. The first was a simple run on short yardage, but the second required a Stanley strike to Williams to cross midfield. 
   Later on, the Raiders were stopped on a third-and-medium, and pushed back to the other side of the 50 for a second chance by a holding foul that Dodge, regrettably, chose to accept rather than decline. Though it’s possible the Raiders might have gone for the fourth-and-eight, they jet-swept for 36 and a first down on the carry of Johnny Williams. 
   And two plays later, a Cam Clark carry to the three and a Stanley keeper on first-and-goal, they were in the end zone. 
   West Laurens was able to double up on pre-halftime touchdowns on the next Dodge County series, when a Jaden Williams pressure forced a rushed throw, and JaTorian Parker slid over from the flat to the middle to steal Johnson’s pass. 
   A facemask penalty kick-started the Raider drive, and four plays later, they were eight yards out on first and goal. Stanley followed his blocks to the two, and was caught up before several of his linemen came to the rescue and joined to thrust him across the goal line for the score with just 10 seconds to go in the half. 
   Dustin Couey’s point-after kicks, on both TDs, sailed through for the two critical points. The senior specialist also placed two vital second-half punts inside the Dodge County 20. 
   Stanley rushed for a team-high of 49 yards, and completed six of his nine passes for 52. 
   Burdette, in praising the junior's quarterbacking debut, highlighted his many key throws and a not-inconsequential scramble for a big first down that helped the Raiders pin Dodge inside its 20 once in the third quarter. But he overwhelmingly highlighted his progress as a leader on the field, and in maintaining poise under pressure. 
   When things started to come apart, Stanley didn’t crack, and neither did his teammates. 
   “I’m really proud of him,” Burdette said. “He kept fighting and right there at the end, he had the huddle. He had those guys, talking to them and pumping them up. That’s what we want to see out of him.” 
   Inside linebackers Jordan Spencer (11.5 total) and Quentin Clark (10.5) led the West Laurens defensive in tackles. Cam Clark and Jontavious Kellam also made fumble recoveries. 
   West Laurens (1-0) will host an unbeaten Houston County, fresh off a rollercoaster win over rival Perry, next Friday night at the SHU. 
   Burdette will be glad to return home with a first win in the books. 
   “It feels really good. I feel relieved, excited,” he said. “I’m just really excited, excited for the whole team and program and the coaching staff and the community.” 

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