JOHNS CREEK — There were big plays and trick plays, wacky plays and plays that seemed like gifts. An inspirational senior made a rare appearance on the field, and a budding star etched his name into the record books.
North Forsyth won’t go to the playoffs this season, but the Raiders ended the 2008 campaign by giving the fans who braved the wet weather plenty of memorable moments in the season finale at Northview.
But the best memory of all could be the feeling of optimism for the future emanating from the Raider program after North’s 47-20 stomping of the Titans to finish the season at 4-4 in Region 7-AAAAA and 5-5 overall.
Second-year head coach Jared Zito’s voice was practically gone afterward, but there was no hiding his enthusiasm for the progress of the program, which won one game in each of the previous two seasons.
“Right now, I think this group of seniors and players have raised the bar to a new level,” Zito said. “People in Coal Mountain have nothing but positive things to expect from this program.”
A big part of the Raider future is tied up in sophomore running back Tyler Slaton, who set program marks in points in a single season (80), single-game rushing yards (217) and the most rushing yards in a 10-game non-playoff season.
On Friday, Slaton scored all three of his touchdowns in the second half as the Raiders pulled away, starting with a 56-yarder on North’s first play from scrimmage in the second half.
He crashed in from 10 yards out to give North a 28-6 lead later in the third quarter and later scored on a four-yard plunge that iced the game midway through the fourth.
“Tyler’s got a chance to be a special back in our offense," Zito said, noting the performance of the offensive line and the option reads of senior quarterback Eli Chester — who scored the first two rushing touchdowns of the game — as instrumental in Slaton’s success.
Northview set the tone for a night of trickery in the first quarter, attempting an onside kick on the opening kickoff and recovering. The game would see a total of four onside kicks.
The teams traded punts, and then came the first of a series of strange plays. Northview quarterback Sid Harrelson tried to fit a deep pass into triple coverage and it appeared North would have an easy interception.
But the defender dropped it and the ball floated into the hands of Northview receiver Ashton Davis-Grimes for a 48-yard gain. From there, Northview moved 18 yards in six plays to open the scoring on a six-yard run by Harrelson.
The oddities continued throughout the half. Northview faked a kick on the point after and tried to pass for two but failed.
After Chester tied the score with a 17-yard run of his own, a botched snap turned into a frantic scramble, a backwards pass that was fumbled and nearly returned for two the other way.
North’s go-ahead touchdown was set up by a fumbled snap on a punt, and Tyler Riddle made the sack at the Northview 7.
But the strangest play of the night came early in the fourth quarter. North had the ball after the Titans had scored on a 28-yard pass to Davis-Grimes. On fourth-and-four from the Raider 40 with a 28-13 lead, Zito opted to go for it.
Slaton took a handoff and tried the right side, but was stacked up. He fumbled the ball back toward the North backfield and it looked like a huge momentum-turning play by the Titan defense.
But Slaton’s teammate Jory Walsh scooped up the ball and scrambled to his left, reversing field. Walsh was able to pick up a couple of key blocks and turn the corner, gaining nine yards and a first down. Two plays later, Chester hit Jordan Totten for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
“Primarily, I didn’t want to give them back the ball,” Zito said of the decision to gamble on fourth down. “They had been able to do some things passing the ball and I felt like it was in our best interest to keep the ball. Leave it to Jory Walsh, a senior, to come up with the big play.”
Northview’s second-half passing game was effective mainly because of Harrelson repeatedly throwing to Davis-Grimes, who finished with 11 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns.
North got some exciting moments in the closing minutes as well. Daniel Samples, a senior and backup kicker, got to attempt the point after on the final two Raider touchdowns. (Quinton Riley returned an interception 68 yards with 4:20 left for the final score.)
Samples missed one PAT and the other was blocked, but his teammates still gave him a rousing cheer and he came back to boot the kickoff deep each time.
“Daniel is our All-American hard worker,” Zito said. “He kicks every day all day. He even kicks at lunch.”
And with the win over Northview to punctuate the season and send out this group of seniors, the Raiders will be able watch the playoffs with the satisfaction of knowing that they have taken a big step toward returning to the postseason themselves.