Brad Waggoner admitted to butterflies Friday night in making his debut as Decatur High's head football coach. His young team had traveled to Atlanta to face an experienced Grady High team.
“I was just hoping we wouldn’t come in here and get beaten by four touchdowns or more," he said.
Decatur lost 18-6 at Grady Stadium, but his team showed spirit and tenacity during the losss.
A single play may have symbolized the entire night. With 1:18 left in the game Decatur had a third down on Grady’s one-inch line, only a blink away from cutting the score to six or even five points. Decatur fumbled the snap, giving the ball to Grady.
It’s true that botched snap represented one of many mishaps for Decatur, but the fact Decatur was so close demonstrated how much stamina this young team (only nine seniors) had even in the game’s final two minutes.
The Bulldogs delivered a scare to a senior-laden Grady squad that went 7-3 last season and has high expectations.
Grady’s senior quarterback Kivon Taylor completed 12 of 25 passes for 247 yards for a whopping 20.6 yards per completion, with wide receiver Deshawn Benton catching six of those passes for 148 yards.
But they were nearly matched by Decatur’s own talented duo. Sophomore Devonte Carter, making his first varsity start, completed 14 of 26 passes for 163 yards, including three completions to junior Vito Antinozzi, who switched to tight end after starting every game at quarterback the last two years.
But Carter’s favorite target on this night was diminutive Perez Cowan, who caught five passes for 72 yards.
Decatur’s only touchdown came with 10:54 left in the game, when Carter found Perez wide open in the end zone for a 23-yarder. That play was set up moments earlier by Perez’s 63-yard return of a kickoff to the Grady 19.
It wasn’t enough, however, to overcome Decatur’s inability at times to execute, or prevent, big plays.
When Decatur fumbled on the one-inch line (after a seven-play, 59-yard drive highlighted by four catches from senior Terryon Robinson), it was the third time the Bulldogs had been inside Grady’s 20 without getting a single point.
Meantime, Decatur’s defense collapsed at two crucial moments. In the second quarter, Grady had a fourth and 15 on Decatur’s 34 when Taylor completed a 19-yard pass to Benton, who was playing with a broken right thumb. That set up the home team’s first touchdown three plays later.
Late in the third quarter, on second and 10 at Grady’s 39, Taylor dumped a middling pass to Amyr Smith behind the line. Decatur had, seemingly, six or seven shots at squashing Smith, who somehow squirmed away and danced 53 yards to Decatur’s eight, setting up Grady’s final touchdown two plays later with 33 seconds left.
“We made a ton of mistakes, Waggoner said. “The penalties bothered me a lot. We have to learn to finish drives. We allowed way too many big plays.
“But you know what,” he added, “all of it is fixable. All of it.”
Up next for Grady is Friday gabe versus North Clayton, which opened its season with a 21-0 loss to Riverdale. Decatur will play Therrell in Waggoner’s home debut next Friday. Therrell, which lost 14-0 to Maynard Jackson Friday night, is coming off a 1-9 season including a 19-3 loss to Decatur.
After the final horn sounded, Waggoner's opening-night jitters were forgotten.
“I came in here hoping we wouldn’t get blown out,” Waggoner said. “Now, after what I saw tonight, we just might become, in another few weeks, a better football team than the one we played tonight.”