By BLAKE MCCORMICK
South Walton, Fla. – The first feel of cool, fall time air hit Santa Rosa Beach Friday night, but the heated tension generated by the 12th Battle of the Bay was far more recognizable as South Walton defeated Freeport 10-0 in a nerve-racking game. The rather mundane score did not reflect its level of excitement. South Walton (5-0, 2-0) earned its 4th straight win over their arch rivals and further positioned themselves for a district championship.
“This is the way rivalry games should be,” said South Walton coach Phil Tisa, who is now 4-1 against Freeport (3-2, 0-1). “I thought both teams gave everything they had, and I’m glad we came out on top.”
Freeport took the opening possession, and, after an initial first down run by Zack Johnson, stalled out at the 42-yard line. After a good punt backed South Walton up to their own 15-yard line, the Freeport defense set the tone for the whole night. Freeport’s Dalton Simpler put a hard tackle on Seahawk quarterback Austin Garofalo. Then, South Walton speedster Jireh Crittenden took a sweep, and reversed toward apparent open field only to see Cameron Hardee make an impressive solo tackle after a mere three-yard gain. On the next play, an incompletion on a catchable pass forced a punt. The kick was partially deflected by Scooter Saults, giving Freeport great field position at their rival’s 39-yard line. However, the Seahawks’ defense battened down the hatches and wouldn’t let the Bulldog’s past the 26-yard line. Freeport tried to get the first points on the board by attempting a field goal but the kick missed badly as the underdogs from Freeport squandered a golden opportunity to take the lead.
When the South Walton offense returned, a few tough runs scooted the ball to midfield. It looked like the Freeport defense was becoming unsettled, after back-to-back offsides penalties by the Bulldog’s gave South Walton an effortless first down across the 50-yard line. But, in a sudden redirection, Freeport’s massive lineman, Shannon Carswell, intercepted a pass that sent the visitors from Freeport into relief-filled elation. The Bulldog’s offense couldn’t overcome a 10-yard holding penalty, however, and was forced to punt after, again, failing to capitalize on favorable positioning.
At the start of the second quarter, Garofalo found South Walton receiver Ben Balfanz, a quiet, underrated weapon, for back-to-back completions, helping push the Seahawks to their opponent’s 36-yard line. However, the Freeport defense, led by another big hit by Simpler, and two great coverage defenses by Hardee and Dylan Lewis, forced a turnover on downs at their 36-yard line.
Balfanz, who has been making plays in this rivalry for three years, wasn’t ready to exit center stage. On Freeport’s subsequent drive, the senior jarred the ball loose from the grasp of Freeport Quarterback Zack Johnson who was trying to gain a few extra yards on a running play. South Walton’s Demarcus Warner recovered the ball, giving the Seahawks possession at their own 46-yard line.
On the first play of their next drive, Balfanz caught a pass from Garofalo to move into Bulldog territory. Yet another stiff hit by Simpler and a self-inflicted penalty by South Walton forced a Seahawk punt that went out of bounds at the 15-yard line.
After the Bulldog offense scratched their way to midfield, Zack Seay broke loose on a 30-yard run, through great blocking by the Freeport offensive line, before being tackled inside the 20-yard line. Just as it seemed like the Bulldogs were poised to take control of the game, there was another setback, this time a block in the back penalty that abbreviated the big gain by Seay and forced the Bulldog’s back towards midfield. The offense stalled, and punted with 1:25 left in the second quarter.
Just before halftime, Jireh Crittenden ignited the home crowd, breaking loose on what appeared to be a 73-yard touchdown only to have an official correctly rule that the one-time Freeport Bulldog stepped out of bounds at the Freeport 37, generating a collective exhale of relief from the visiting fans from Four Mile Landing. Garofalo misfired on his next two passes and Crittenden, again, was hit behind the line of scrimmage by Dylan Lewis. South Walton punted and Freeport ran out the last 37 seconds of the half, happy to be tied with their heavily favored rivals at halftime.
The Bulldog defense started the second half the same way they started the first; getting to the quarterback. Bryce McBrayer sacked Garofalo for a 10-yard loss on the opening play. Two plays later, on third and 17 from their 28-yard line, South Walton wide receiver Jake Bari snagged a nice pass from Garofalo to keep the drive alive at midfield. Garofalo followed the clutch completion by slipping away from a Bulldog tackle to pick up 29 yards with his feet. But, like Seay’s run for Freeport earlier, Garofalo’s potentially game altering run was followed by an ill-timed penalty that put the ball back at the 30. The drive fizzled at that point and a field goal attempt by Garofalo fell just short with 8:12 left in the 3rd quarter.
Freeport would get the ball back on their 20 and move the ball to the 35-yard line. On third and five, Freeport attempted a sweep to Weston Bates but South Walton’s Baze Clark made the crucial tackle for a loss, forcing a punt with 6:24 left in the 3rd quarter.
South Walton looked like they were going to close out the third quarter in style after a couple of nice runs by Bari and Garofalo put the Seahawks in prime real estate at the Freeport 8-yard line. But, in just another heart palpitating play, Freeport senior lineman Anthony Rucker, dropped off in coverage, and intercepted a Garofalo pass, sending the Orange and Blue crowd into a frenzy.
There had been a recognizable amount of verbal jabbing go on between the rivals and a few potential skirmishes were broken up by teammates and coaches throughout the evening. The stability of the game deteriorated to an almost critical point following Rucker’s interception as consecutive unsportsmanlike penalties and heated exchanges between South Walton and Freeport players prompted the officials to stop the game and hold a conference with both team’s players at midfield. The players shook hands and carried on without any further significant issues. The Bulldogs scratched their way up the field and the third quarter ended with Freeport threatening to score from the Seahawk 13-yard line.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Zack Seay caught a short pass near the goalline, but, another inopportune penalty pushed the ball back towards the 17-yard line. Johnson powered the ball to the 13 on a running play, setting up another field goal attempt by senior Spencer McCullough to give the Bulldogs the critical lead. It was not to be, as the kick veered right and South Walton took possession of the ball at their own 13-yard line with 11:02 left in the contest.
For the second week in a row, South Walton’s offense waited until the final quarter to show its best stuff. On South Walton’s first offensive play, the offensive line opened up a hole for Daniel Leuze to bust through for 24 yards. Garofalo then threw a 15-yard strike to Jake Bari down to the Freeport 33-yard line. Leuze, Bari and Garofalo alternated tough runs, trudging the ball down to the 9-yard line. For the second consecutive game, Garofalo would be called on to put his team ahead in the final quarter with a field goal. There was never a doubt as Garofalo booted the ball through the uprights, giving his team a 3-0 lead with 8:25 left in the game.
Freeport’s offense returned and ran three plays for seven yards. On 4th-and-3 from their own 47-yard line, the Bulldog’s elected to go for the first down but a bad snap to Johnson ruined the play and South Walton took control of the ball, and the game, with 6:22 left in the contest and the ball in Freeport territory on the 34-yard line.
It looked like the Freeport offense would have another chance to take the lead or tie the game as a penalty for too many men down the field following a first down reception by Bari and a tackle on Crittenden for a seven yard loss gave the Seahawks a 3rd-and-24 back at the 47-yard line. Garofalo came to the rescue in only his second start at quarterback as he slipped out of the grasp of the Freeport defense and ran the ball 21 yards down to the 28-yard line, setting up a manageable 4th-and-4 for the offense.
Blayze McBrayer, the brother of Freeport defensive linemen, Bryce McBrayer, plowed forward for six yards, keeping the drive alive while time continued to burn off the clock. Two plays later, McBrayer broke loose on an 18-yard touchdown that put the Seahawks up 10-0 with 2:53 left in the game and sent the victory-sensing home fans into loud jubilation.
Freeport got the ball one last time but couldn’t move the ball past the 42-yard line. South Walton took the ball over with 37 seconds left and took a glorious victory kneel.
With victories over both Walton and Freeport, South Walton now boasts its first county championship. To qualify for the playoffs, the Seahawks now only have to win one of their two remaining district games against either Bozeman or Port St Joe.
South Walton will host the Baker Gators on Friday night at 7 p.m. in a battle of 5-0 teams in a game that has become a marquee non-district rivalry for the Seahawks.
The Bulldogs(3-2) will need to pick up the pieces from the heartbreaking rivalry loss as they play undefeated Mayo-Lafayette County(5-0) this Friday at home with kickoff set for 7 p.m.