WOODSTOCK — As so often happens in the biggest games, it was special teams that made the difference.
Playing in its first road playoff game since 2016, Lee County defeated River Ridge 49-31 on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs.
Lee County (11-1) scored twice on kick returns, recorded a blocked punt and scored the first points of the game following a muffed kickoff return on the opening kickoff of the game. The win advanced the Trojans to the state semifinals for the third time in four seasons where they will host Westlake next Friday.
“My hat goes off to River Ridge and coach (Mike Collins),” Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio said. “What an amazing season they’ve had, and I was really impressed with them. We were able to kind of break it open in the second quarter and extend it in the third quarter, and that’s what good teams do, even when there are momentum swings.
“When we entered the playoffs, we challenged our special teams. We’d been good in that area, but we hadn’t been making the game-breaking plays. It’s a big part of the game, especially when you get to this point in the season.”
For River Ridge (11-1), the best season in program history — and one of the best ever in Cherokee County — came to an end. The Knights set numerous program firsts this season but, on Friday night, the mistakes were too much to overcome against a talented and playoff-seasoned opponent.
“It was four special teams plays. That was the bottom line,” Collins said. “We lost that phase of the game badly tonight, and that’s on me. I wished I would have done a better job of preparing our guys for the moment. I thought the moment was big for us early, but once we settled down, I thought we played right with them.”
Lee County took full advantage of its opportunities.
Following the muffed kickoff return to start the game, the Trojans punched it in three plays later when Chauncey Magwood found Tyrus Washington for a 6-yard score. Magwood, who finished 10-for-16 passing for 92 yards, extended Lee County’s lead minutes later when he hit Jevell Ferguson down the sideline for a 24-yard score.
River Ridge answered the initial punch, however, when Carson Lathem connected with Andrew Bingham for a 19-yard touchdown on a screen pass down the sideline.
The momentum was quickly retaken by Lee County and what would be the player of the game.
Senior running back Caleb McDowell scored the first of his five touchdowns on a 21-yard score up the middle, and Lee County led 21-7 and the end of the first quarter. McDowell would add a 75-yard kickoff return, a 49-yard punt return and two more rushing touchdowns in the game.
The South Carolina commit finished with 11 carries for 131 yards, two receptions for 11 yards and 131 return yards.
“Going through the game plan all week, we never wanted to forget how we got put out last year. We use that as motivation,” McDowell said. “It feels great to be two games away from our goal.”
River Ridge made its push in the second quarter behind its own standout running back.
Amehre Morrison’s 77-yard burst down the sideline gave a jolt of life to River Ridge, and the Knights were in a threatening position when Lee County fumbled on the ensuing possession. Scotty Rutherford’s 39-yard field goal made the score 21-17 with 4:18 left until halftime, but that was as close as River Ridge would get to overtaking the lead.
McDowell returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for the score and added a 22-yard score minutes later. Lee County led 35-17 at the half.
“We always preach how special teams is the game-changer, and when you actually make a play on special teams, you get that feeling like it’s the turning point in the game,” McDowell said. “For me, the special team touchdowns are better than the regular touchdowns.”
Beyond Morrison’s long score, Lee County contained the Knights’ running game. Morrison finished with 19 carries for 122 yards.
McDowell’s punt return was the only scoring of the third quarter and his fifth touchdown, a 62-yard run, early in the fourth quarter gave Lee County a 49-17 lead.
River Ridge added two scores late in the fourth, both on touchdown receptions by Jackson Head. Lathem finished 17-for-30 passing, while Head finished with five receptions for a game-high 82 yards.
In the end, it was the dynamic playmaking of McDowell which was the difference.
For River Ridge, the 2020 season was a statement.
“I’m just so thankful to have been able to coach this group this year,” Collins said. “What they did for our school, our community and themselves in the middle of everything that was going on this year, they gave us something we could hang our hat on. I think this was a great building block for us, and now it’s about maintaining at this level.”
For Lee County, it is now two wins away from its third state title in four seasons.
“We’d played 15 straight home playoff games before tonight, and we challenged our kids to come play well in this one tonight,” Fabrizio said. “Our kids responded tonight and, fortunately, we’ll be home next week against a really good Westlake team.”