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VALIANT EFFORT: Valwood ends Trojans' streak and drive for five

Dec. 1—MACON — Make it twice now that November the 30th has been unkind to the John Milledge Academy football program.

The Trojans lost the state championship to Frederica Nov. 30, 2018, then ran roughshod over their competition for what became a nation-leading and Georgia high school football record 62-game winning streak lasting nearly five full seasons.

That was until Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, when the streak fell.

It wasn't a date on the calendar that took the Trojans (12-1) down though. It was a fast as lightning Valwood Valiants (11-1) squad that had touchdowns of 30, 62, 63, and 33 yards, among other chunk plays in the 42-21 winning effort inside Mercer University's Five Star Stadium.

"They were as advertised," John Milledge head coach JT Wall told The Union-Recorder and Central Georgia Sports Report's Michael Lough postgame. "They're good ... Hats off to Valwood. They played a heck of a ballgame."

The Valiants deserve that "hats off" comment from the Trojan head coach. During John Milledge's streak, only a handful of teams have stepped up to the plate and answered the daunting challenge posed by the juggernaut program. Most games were over by halftime, some by the end of the first quarter. But Valwood never shied away, even after being down 13 early in the second.

John Milledge got off to a good start. The defense stood tall while the offense found its way, as can be the case in big games like the one played Thursday. The Trojans broke the scoreless tie late in the opening period via 2-yard rush by senior Javian Butts, his 28th touchdown on the ground this year.

JMA junior kicker Jacob Noles broke out his sand wedge on the ensuing kickoff, chipping the ball right into the middle of the Valiants' return formation. Jalan Butts swam to the football to give his team a possession that bled over into the second quarter. That effort ended with a 20-yard TD pass from Kolt McMichael to Bud Veal. The extra point was botched, so the score sat 13-0 Trojans early in the second.

Up two scores, the Trojans watched that advantage fall by the wayside. Penalties and Valwood finding its offensive rhythm allowed the Valiants to tote a slight 14-13 lead into the locker room at half. Junior Triston White shot through a big hole up the middle for his team's first score with 8:46 left until halftime. The Valwood offense had not had much success up to that point with two three-and-outs. An even bigger play on their next possession, a third-and-11 screen pass to Marquis Fennell that covered 62 yards, made it a new ballgame.

"We hadn't seen that team speed from multiple guys this year," Wall said. "It was tough."

John Milledge had the ball first in the second half. Throwing deep left for Veal, McMichael's pass was picked off by a well-positioned Landen Ryan. Valwood, as good football teams do, turned that extra possession into points. It was sophomore quarterback Tayt Snellgrove, a gritty young athlete who played a near-perfect ballgame, that finished off the drive on a zone read keeper from 19 yards out. The score was 21-13 Valiants with 8:59 left in the third.

After traded three-and-outs, McMichael found Veal on a corner route TD to get John Milledge within two. That same connection showed up again on the ensuing two-point conversion as the junior McMichael rolled right and threw to his senior receiver in the end zone, making it 21-21 with the third quarter dwindling.

Good teams don't just turn gifted possessions into points. They also answer when challenged, and that's what the Valiants did. It was Snellgrove again pulling on a read option and dashing 62 yards to put his team back ahead before the third quarter was spent.

The backbreaking sequence came in the fourth quarter. Trailing 28-21 with about 10 minutes to play, John Milledge turned the football over on downs in Valwood territory. On the ensuing drive, Valiant senior running back and leading rusher De'mar Riley burst through the line of scrimmage for 51 yards to take his team down to the Trojan 11. Valwood's White finished off the charge with a 2-yard scoring plunge to put the south Georgia school up 35-21 with 8:16 to play.

In extremely unfamiliar territory trailing in the fourth, JMA still had time to make something happen. But those long odds grew infinitely larger when a McMichael pass was caught then fumbled away by the receiver after he was spun around by a hard hit. Valwood's Hudson Paylo jumped on the loose football, and soon after Snellgrove connected with Riley for a 33-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to put the game completely out of reach with 6:28 remaining.

Coach Wall was asked what it was like to see his program's 62-game winning streak end.

"It's kind of a numb feeling right now," he said. "You knew it was going to end eventually. It's just time to start a new one. You use it as motivation and try to get locked in. That's what some people never understand. Every year when we walk off this field, win or lose, we're thinking about next year already. You start looking at these young guys and hoping they fall in love with the weight room a whole lot more and grow up and get bigger, faster, and stronger."

Some John Milledge players had to be consoled once the game went final. The seniors who had been with the program four years literally went their whole careers without losing a ballgame until Thursday. They finish with a 49-1 record and three state championships.