WINDER - While the offensive stars usually get the headlines, it was defense and special teams that set the table for Apalachee Friday night as the Wildcats worked back from a three-point halftime deficit to knock off Habersham Central 28-19 in Region 8-AAAA action.
Apalachee (5-1 overall, 5-1 region) ran into a Habersham Central team that looked average at best on paper with a 3-3 record, but the Raiders proved to be a stern test for Wildcats - who relied on big plays from its defense and special teams to get this win.
Apalachee used three plays from its punt-return team to set up touchdowns in the game and an interception returned for a score sealed the deal and sent the Wildcats to their fifth win of the year.
Trailing 10-7 at the half, a deflected punt by Chaun Gresham set the Wildcats up at the Habersham 22. John Ansley scored from 5 yards out to regain the lead for Apalachee at 14-10.
Apalachee then received a gift just 3 minutes later from Habersham Central when a Wildcats' punt hit off a Raider and Gresham recovered at the 16. Jon Lee got loose on the second play from 19 yards away and Apalachee was looking comfortable at 21-10.
Following a Josh Welborn 27-yard field goal for Habersham Central midway through the fourth quarter that cut the Apalachee lead to 21-13, Ansley put the game away on defense with a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Habersham Central added a late score on a 48-yard TD to Kevin Ellison from Austin Brown.
"We didn't have too many things going well in the first half, but it really never was because of effort," said Apalachee head coach Shane Davis. "But we just couldn't maintain anything consistent because of a key penalty here or even some decisions by me that put us in tough situations. But I do think we came out in the second half with some more enthusiasm and we got excited after good plays and never let the bad plays get us down.
"We have to stay focused because everything from here on is going to be a grind. It's going to be tough these next four weeks and it was tough tonight."
After falling behind 7-0 to Habersham Central on a first-quarter Kevin Ellison 1-yard TD run, Apalachee got a 31-yard punt return from Ansley to up the Wildcats in business at the Habersham 15. Billy Mannis scored on the fourth play of the short drive from 5 yards out to tie the game at 7-7.
Habersham got a gift late in the first half. After a terrific goal-line stand by the Apalachee defense that culminated in a failed fake field goal by Habersham Central at the Apalachee 6, the Wildcats coughed it up with just 15 seconds left in the second quarter.
A crucial facemask penalty on Apalachee moved the ball to the Wildcats' 22. That set up Sam Cantrell's 38-yard field goal and Raiders took a 10-7 lead to the locker rooms.
Lee paced the Apalachee offensive attack with 160 yards on 26 attempts.
Apalachee 23, Habersham Central 19
Habersham: Kevin Ellison 1 run (Josh Welborn kick) 6:26
Apalachee: Billy Mannis 5 run (John Livesay kick) 8:51
Habersham: Sam Cantrell 38 FG, :00
Apalachee: John Ansley 5 run (Livesay kick) 3:59
Apalachee: Jon Lee 19 run (Livesay kick) :55
Habersham: Welborn 27 FG, 5:41
Apalachee: Ansley 37 interception return (Livesay kick) 2:38
Habersham: Kevin Ellison 48 pass from Austin Brown (pass failed) :09