By REID TUCKER
Gridiron history was made Friday, Oct. 28, as South Walton defeated Freeport 35-21 in the Seahawks’ first-ever football victory of the pitched county rivalry.
South Walton’s win in the 2013 “Battle of the Bay” comes as the most recent in a series of triumphs for the now 6-2 program, which also upset the ever-tough Chipley by a final score of 45-38 earlier this season. Despite that win and others, the combination of which has made South Walton a likely candidate for a state playoff berth, the Seahawks’ win against Freeport (0-8, 0-2 in District 1-A) is something special. South Walton head coach Phil Tisa was almost at a loss for words when he described the tumult of emotions he and his players experienced in the aftermath of the landmark victory.
“It’s hard to prepare yourself when you look at what we did against Chipley, where nobody expected us to do it, and then tonight to do something that South Walton has never done before,” Tisa said. “Right now we’re all just enjoying the moment.”
When it came to on-field action the Seahawks had a veritable trove of moments worth enjoying. The first and foremost among them occurred quite literally on the first play of the game when Freeport muffed the ball on the opening kickoff, only to have it recovered on the 37-yard line by South Walton’s Austin Garofolo. Harrison Schaffer punched the ball into the end zone with a mad dash of a run on the first play from scrimmage to put the Seahawks up 7-0 once Garofolo made good on the point-after kick.
All that happened within 19 seconds of the start of the contest.
The Seahawks held Freeport to three-and-out on their next possession, and then Zach Reese put the finishing touches on a 10-play drive by scoring from 21 yards out. South Walton led 14-zip at the 7:07 mark after Garofolo put another kick between the uprights. What happened next set the tone for the whole game – this was going to be a blow-for-counterblow fight between equally determined antagonists.
Freeport’s Tyler Head snagged a pass from South Walton QB Jonathan Ortner and three plays later the Bulldogs scored, with Chase Caswell bursting through the Seahawk d-line on a three-yard scramble to the EZ. Matthew Blair’s kick was good for the point after to make it a 14-7 game with 4:16 left in the period. Freeport’s own defense halted the South Walton’s riposte, forcing the Seahawks to punt from just across midfield, and the score was tied in four plays as David Godwin, fresh off injured reserve, blew past his defenders on a 10-yard rush for paydirt with 2:14 remaining.
It was Freeport’s turn for first blood in the second quarter, taking their only lead of the game when quarterback Dillon Bates hit Godwin with a javelin toss of a 55-yard pass for the go-ahead TD at the 9:14 mark. Head came up with a fumble recovery when South Walton’s Zach Reese had the ball knocked loose on the Freeport 14-yard line, but the Seahawks had none of it, stopping the drive and forcing the Bulldogs to punt. They needed just three plays to score on an incredible 37-yard pass from Ortner to Vinnie Ciurleo to tie the game at 21-all with 5:30 to go in the half.
The rest of the first half and the whole third quarter were scoreless as the sides ground out the ensuing possessions and burned the clock. However, South Walton’s Carter Edwards flipped the script only a few seconds into the final period, hauling down a Freeport pass on the Seahawks’ 35. Sage Roberts caught a pass from Ortner one-handed to gain of 38 yards on the second play from scrimmage and set up a scoring run of 18 yards by Schaffer, who came across the line with 10:31 showing on the clock.
Ornter scored the Seahawk’s final touchdown of the game on a 35-yard keeper with a little more than four minutes left in the game. Prior to that, Ciurleo picked off yet another Freeport pass for an interception. Freeport got no farther than the 25 in its one remaining possession and South Walton summarily took a knee to run out the clock for the win.
The two teams had close to the same numbers in most respects. Freeport had 158 rushing yards to South Walton’s 170, but more passing yards at 226 to 220 to achieve near-parity in total offense. They even had similar negative yardage due to penalties, though Freeport got the worst of it at 81 yards to South Walton’s 70 yards.
South Walton’s Tisa said the victory came down to sheer perseverance. “We just kept fighting,” he said. “We had some stupid turnovers and got involved in some stuff, but you we just kept playing. The (Sage Roberts) touchdown was huge, Vinnie’s interception was huge, Carter’s interception was huge. The turnovers turned out to be the difference.”
For his part, Freeport coach Jim Anderson had praise for his players in spite of the loss, only the most recent in what has become a trying season for the program. Freeport will travel to Jay on Friday to face the Royals in the last district game of the year. Anderson expressed his hope that the Bulldogs could get a win against Jay as they have for the past few years.
“It was a fine effort,” Anderson said to his players in the post-game huddle. “I didn’t see anybody quitting out there. You went as hard as you could. The key is we’ve got to eliminate mistakes.”