It took a fifth quarter in the 10th game of the season, but West Forsyth scratched and clawed its way to the program’s first region title.
The No. 8-ranked Wolverines got all they could handle and then some from a Lambert squad playing only for pride, before pulling out a 17-16 victory in overtime and clinching the Region 6-AAAAAA championship Friday night at The Horn.
West (9-1, 6-1 Region 6), in its fifth varsity season, becomes the first Forsyth County football program to win a region title at any level higher than Class AAA and the first local team to win a region championship in the Georgia High School Association since 2001.
West’s championship dreams came down to a two-point conversion attempt by Lambert (5-5, 2-5) on the final play in overtime. The Longhorns answered a touchdown by the Wolverines and elected to go for the win rather than attempt an extra point to tie the game, but quarterback Hayden McLeod’s pass over the middle sailed a little too far behind receiver Chandler Register and fell incomplete, sending the Wolverines into a celebration on the field.
The victory was the culmination of six years of hard work for West head coach Frank Hepler, who, after 14 successful seasons at Plantation High School in Florida, moved to Forsyth County in 2007 to start the Wolverines’ program from scratch.
"It’s very satisfying," Hepler said. "I even had a University of Georgia coach who recruited our area heavily down in Florida ask me was I crazy for coming up here. He said, ‘You had all that talent in Florida, you won 10 district titles, what are you doing? You’re going to Forsyth County where they don’t play real good football.’ I said, ‘I’ve looked into it ... it’s a great community and I think we’re going to do well.
"He kind of looked at me like I was crazy, but I said, ‘I think even within the [first] five years we can win a region. ... Now we’ve got a bunch of kids going to Division I schools and here we are region champions."
Said West linebacker Mohamed Camara: "We made history tonight. We’re really happy about that."
In the first varsity football game between Forsyth County’s newest high schools, what looked like a mismatch on paper — West was favored by 22 points in one projection — turned out to be a slugfest on the field, as West held a narrow 3-2 lead until the 6:58 mark in the fourth quarter.
Despite gaining only 22 yards of offense in the first half, Lambert led 2-0 for all but 64 seconds before halftime, as the Wolverines were called for a safety on the opening drive of the game due to a holding penalty in the end zone.
Between penalties and Lambert’s stiff defense, West had tallied only 22 yards of offense at the end of its first six drives.
The Wolverines finally put together a 65-yard drive to get in range for a field goal near the end of the first half, and kicker Timmy Hartshorn hit a 42-yard attempt to put them on top 3-2 with 45.8 seconds remaining before halftime.
"The offense, we weren’t clicking tonight," West quarterback A.J. Erdely said. "Defense won us that game and Timmy, after having that rough [night] at Chattahoochee, he responded. You’ve got to give props to Lambert; they played their butts off."
West’s 3-2 lead held until the fourth quarter, as Longhorns kicker Brock Maxwell narrowly missed a 50-yard field goal attempt with 1:43 left in the third quarter.
Facing fourth-and-7 at the Lambert 37 with 9:09 to play, Erdely (10 of 25, 108 passing yards, INT) picked up a first down with an 11-yard pass to tight end Ty Anderson (4 receptions, 59 receiving yards), then scrambled down the left sideline to the 1-yard line on the next play.
Two plays later, Erdely (22 carries, 76 yards, TD) bulldozed into the end zone to cap off the 53-yard drive and put West ahead 10-2 after Hartshorn’s extra point.
The Wolverines appeared to have the win in hand after recovering a Lambert fumble at the Longhorns’ 49 on the ensuing drive. Instead, the Wolverines fumbled the ball back to Lambert at the Longhorns’ 13.
Lambert quickly flipped the field, as Register connected with T.J. Russell on a 62-yard option pass down to the Wolverines’ 33.
Three plays later, McLeod broke off a 24-yard touchdown run down the right side with only 1:11 remaining, then passed to Register in the right corner of the end zone for a successful two-point conversion that tied the game 10-10 and forced overtime.
GHSA rules allow each team a possession starting at the opponent’s 15-yard line in the extra period.
Camara, who also gets a few snaps at running back each game, capped the Wolverines’ drive with a hard-fought two-yard gain for the touchdown, and Hartshorn tacked on the extra point to put West ahead 17-10.
"We practice that play [what seems like] 100 times every practice," Camara said. "[Our line] made a hole and I just went through it.
"We just come out every day ... and fight our hardest. It was a close one, but our mental toughness over the last few games helped us pull this one out."
Lambert responded as McLeod picked up nine yards down to the six and later took the ball in from one yard out, setting up the deciding two-point attempt.
Lambert head coach Sid Maxwell said there was never any hesitation about going for the two-point conversion attempt.
"With nine guys out [due to injury], we’ve got four or five guys going both ways," Maxwell said. "They played their hearts out but we were about depleted.
"I want to congratulate Coach Hepler and his group. What a first-class program and a well-coached team, and I wish them the best and hope they go far.
"We’ve got a young team. A lot of things started to come together for our boys and I think they just relaxed and played and it was a great coaching effort by our staff."
Lambert finished with 203 yards of offense.
The Wolverines were held to 255 yards of offense and their lowest point total of the season while fumbling three times — losing one — and throwing an interception.
But with West’s first region trophy in hand, Hepler didn’t care how ugly the win was, or whether it came by an inch or a mile.
"We’ll take a victory," Hepler said.
"If it had ended 3-2, I would have been happy with that. If there was a way to do a half a point, I would have taken a half-a-point victory."
West will host Collins Hill, the No. 4 seed from Region 7, in the first round of the playoffs on Friday.
Minutes after the win over the Longhorns, Camara was already thinking ahead to the playoffs and hoping to improve upon West’s run to the state quarterfinals in 2011.
"It’s really exciting," Camara said of winning the region championship, "but as Coach Hepler’s going to say, ‘Let’s only be excited for today.’ We’ve got to focus for the opponent we have next week and we feel like we have a long future [in the playoffs]."