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Cardwell's touchdown seals Wesleyan's 20-12 victory

NORCROSS - Daniel Cardwell wasn't the main receiver. In fact, he wasn't even Wesleyan quarterback Conor Welton's second choice.

"He was the third option," Welton said. "We were trying to throw deep."

Instead, Cardwell took a short pass over the middle and went deep, turning a fourth-down gamble by Wesleyan into a fourth-quarter touchdown.

"Nothing can feel better than this," Cardwell said. "We're going to the Georgia Dome."

Wesleyan prevailed against tradition and a defense that had allowed just 5.8 points per game, beating visiting Lincoln County 20-12 at Henderson Stadium to advance to the Class A championship game.

The Wolves will have to face No. 1-ranked Emanuel County Institute and record-setting runner Washaun Ealey next Saturday at 2 p.m., but that didn't matter Friday night. It was time to celebrate.

"Can you believe this?" Wesleyan headmaster Zach Young yelled as he watched players and fans celebrate at midfield. "What a game."

"I don't think many people thought we could do this," Wolves' senior Bobby Worthington said. "It feels so good right now."

Lincoln County, which has won 14 state titles and 11 under legendary coach Larry Campbell, came in with seven shutouts and only Newnan in Class AAAAA had allowed fewer points per game.

But with the Red Devils determined to stop tailback Kyle Karempelis, Welton went to the air and Lincoln County paid the price. Six different Wolves caught passes as the junior quarterback was 17-for-27 for 151 yards and all three touchdowns.

None was any bigger than his final connection with Cardwell.

Wesleyan coach Franklin Pridgen, his team clinging to a 13-12 lead, decided to bypass a 37-yard field goal attempt and go for it on fourth-and-6 from the 20-yard line with just over seven minutes left.

Welton looked deep and then deep again. His primary receivers weren't open. It didn't matter, though. Cardwell, a junior who played mainly on the JV team last season, was open short over the middle.

"I was the safety valve," said Cardwell, who had three catches for 48 yards. "Once I caught it, I had some room to run and Anderson Porter made a great block. No one really touched me."

The touchdown was Cardwell's third of the season and obviously the biggest. But more heroics were to come.

With Lincoln County trying to drive for a touchdown and a possible tying two-point conversion, Cardwell picked off a pass near midfield to clinch the victory that sent Wesleyan to a state title game for the first time.

Cardwell was hardly the only Wesleyan receiver who came up with a big play. Porter caught a 6-yard pass in the end zone for the Wolves' first score and it was Worthington's 13-yard touchdown followed by a Spencer Short extra point that put the Wolves up for good in the third quarter.

Worthington, who had four catches, took a short pass and made a spin move to elude a tackle before heading to the end zone.

"I really don't know where that came from," Worthington said of the spin. "It just happened. But it worked out great."

It was that kind of night. Almost everything worked for the Wolves and the results couldn't have been better.