Cedartown football survived and advanced on Friday night. The Bulldogs secured their first trip to the semifinals since 2001 with a 39-25 quarterfinal victory over the Perry Panthers.
Seventh-ranked Perry (11-2) would not make things easy, however. Friday’s clash at the Panther Pit in Houston County came down to the final quarter, and it was Cedartown (11-1) who made the necessary plays to move in the GHSA Class 4A Football State Playoffs.
The Panthers won the opening coin toss and elected to defer, giving Cedartown the ball to start the game. Much like the previous week’s opening possession against Cairo, the Bulldogs began the contest with a methodical, time-consuming march to the end zone.
Harlem Diamond found pay-dirt from 18 yards out and Mario Maldonado nailed the extra point to make it a 7-0 ballgame midway through the first quarter.
Perry took much less time finding their first score of the day. A two-minute scoring drive was capped off with a touchdown pass from junior quarterback Armar Gordon Jr. to sophomore receiver Daequan Wright. The Panthers missed the extra point, so the Bulldogs remained on top by one point.
Cedartown added two more first-half scores. Georgia commit CJ Washington broke away from the defense on a 60-yard touchdown run, and senior kicker Mario Maldonado converted a 30-yard field goal to create an 11-point cushion for the Bulldogs. The Panthers’ pass game led them down the field once more, and their second touchdown of the night created a 17-12 score in favor of the visitors.
The second half did not start out ideally for the Junkyard Dawg defense. Perry found the end zone again, this time in just over a minute, to take their first lead of the night. The Bulldogs attempted another field goal, but the Panthers got a piece of it for the second time to preserve their 18-17 advantage.
CHS forced another stop and got the ball back midway through the third quarter.
Another long, rush-happy possession ensued, leading Cedartown into the Panther red zone.
Once again Washington burst into the end zone, this time from two yards out. A successful two-point conversion followed, giving the Bulldogs a 25-18 lead.
Following another defensive stop, the Bulldogs got the ball back with a chance to pull away. This time, they would succeed. Washington converted the hat trick with his third rushing touchdown of the evening. That 6-yard scamper put Cedartown up 14 points with 7 minutes remaining in the game.
Perry responded with a quick scoring drive, giving the ball almost immediately back to the Cedartown offense. The Bulldogs drove to midfield but faced a third-and-12 with just over three minutes left. The offensive staff called a play action pass and most of the Cedartown receivers were covered. However, junior quarterback Reece Tanner was able to find CJ Washington wide open streaking down the left sideline on a wheel route.
The signal caller delivered a perfect pass to the senior tailback in stride, guiding him untouched into the end zone. That score seemed to suck all the air out of the Panther Pit and helped ice the Elite 8 victory for the Bulldogs.
“I knew we wouldn’t flinch (when Perry battled back), and we warned them at halftime there would be a surge,” Bulldog head coach Jamie Abrams said. “They are a special group of young men who are fighting for each other right now.”
CJ Washington stole the show at Perry High School. The senior rushed 26 times for 204 yards and three touchdowns, and also reeled in two passes for 51 yards and another score. Much of this production came in the second half after junior running back Harlem Diamond went down with an injury.
“He wasn’t the only guy who stepped up, but there were several plays where he showed why he will soon be playing in the SEC,” Abrams said. “He had several great blocks when he didn’t carry the ball which proves how much of a team player he is.”
Cedartown has increasingly turned to the pass game in recent weeks, and Friday night resulted in their best passing performance in some time. Reece Tanner was 5-of-8 passing for 111 yards and one touchdown. He also tucked it and ran three times, gaining 18 net yards. Jordan Johnson had two catches for 19 yards, with Washington adding his two huge receptions.
The Bulldog rushing attack was still working like a charm at Perry. As a team, Cedartown rushed 53 times for a total of 334 yards. The vast majority of these came by CJ Washington, who fought through arm tackles and bounced off contact all night long. Harlem Diamond had six carries for 56 yards and one score, while Patrick Gardner ran 17 times for 56 yards.
Cedartown’s 39 points are the most Perry allowed all season. Additionally, only Crisp County held the Panthers to under 25 points this fall, as the Panthers won that game 21-0 in Week 2.
Perry was the first team since Northwest Whitfield to find consistent success on offense against the Bulldog defense. Junior quarterback Armar Gordon Jr. threw for 274 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. The Panthers ran just six times all night, gaining 57 yards on the ground. Daequan Wright was their most productive receiver, finishing with 175 yards and two scores on eight receptions.
“The defense battled all night. We lost footing a couple times in the secondary and had a misalignment which allowed them to make some big plays, and to their credit, they made them,” Abrams said. “However, we also made some plays when we needed them. We held them out on their two-point conversion and came up with those two big turnovers in the fourth quarter.”
Abrams stated he was pleased with how the team performed in a definite playoff atmosphere over 150 miles away from home. “Going on the road and winning in an environment like that says a lot about the mental toughness and resiliency of our kids,” Abrams said.
With the victory in middle Georgia, the Bulldogs advance to the Final Four round of the state playoffs. The last time Cedartown played in a state semifinal matchup was 2001, when the undefeated Bulldogs beat Fitzgerald 41-16 in the fourth-round before falling 22-19 to LaGrange in the Class 3A State Championship Game.
Cedartown faces another massive test on Friday night, as the fourth-ranked Bulldogs will take on no. 3 Carver-Columbus in the semifinals. The Tigers enter 12-1 on the season with their only loss coming to Lee County, the second-ranked team in Class 6A, back in Week 1.
Carver-Columbus has numerous Division I prospects along the offense and defense. Some standouts include senior offensive lineman Elijah Pritchett, a 6-foot-6, 280-pound four-star committed to Alabama, junior offensive lineman Kelton Smith, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound four-star athlete with offers from several SEC and ACC programs, and senior running back Jaiden Credle, who has been offered by the likes of Central Florida, Ole Miss, and Syracuse.
Abrams said that, along with prepping for the very talented Tigers, the coaching staff will work on cleaning some penalty issues that occurred in the Perry game.
“I am extremely proud of every player and coach in our program,” Abrams said, “and we are proud to be playing one more week of football.”
Also of note, Cedartown has now reached the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds in the first two years of the Jamie Abrams era.
“I haven’t made it to the quarters and semis, we have,” Abrams said. “I am very proud of our kids and coaches for accepting the challenge each week and allowing us an opportunity to play four more quarters of playoff football.”
Friday’s game against Carver-Columbus will be held at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium in Columbus. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and a trip to Atlanta for the Class 4A state championship is on the line.