LUDOWICI, GA -- The Long County Blue Tide football team has played football for 24 seasons, dating back to 1984 and consecutively since 2002.
In that stretch, they have never made the playoffs.
The Tide traveled to Nahunta to face off against the Brantley County Herons in a pivotal region matchup and what many would call the biggest game in team history.
The team knew what was at stake and answered the call, defeating the Herons 28-19 on Friday.
Long County opened the game, as they have done so every game this year, on offense.
They controlled the clock, going on a 16-play drive that ate up the first seven and a half minutes of the game, eventually capping off the drive on an 18-yard touchdown run by sophomore Steven Wyatt to go up 6-0 after the missed two-point attempt.
The opening drive was paced by big runs by Joe Saddler, who picked up 12 yards on the first play, 11 more two plays later, and another eight on a second and long.
Wyatt’s run came on a third down and long inside the 20 and was sprung by Dwayne Rowe’s big block on the edge.
The Herons opened their first drive from their own 42 after the short kickoff and immediately went to work through the air and on the ground, paced by their do-it-all athlete Kellon Middleton.
The Herons picked up 12 yards on a big third and nine near midfield to keep their drive alive into Tide territory.
As the first quarter ended with the Tide up 6-0, the Herons had the ball inside the 25, looking to take the lead.
Middleton picked up 19 yards on a rolling screen down to the three and two plays later, they scored on quarterback sneak to take the 7-6 lead.
The Tide’s next offensive drive started off as badly as they could have hoped as two false start penalties backed them up 10 yards.
However, senior Tony Phillips bailed them out, picking up 15 yards into Heron territory.
The Tide faced a third and short from the Brantley 35 and Josiah Ansorena-Smith got the call.
He picked up the first down and then some but as he was spun to the ground, the ball popped out of his hands and into a Heron defender’s.
Brantley County took over at their own 46 but were trotting their defense back on the field just two plays later.
A mishap on the handoff led to their own fumble as Elias Lykes recovered at the 45.
The Tide kept working the clock and drove down the Brantley 12 before facing a fourth and four.
Needing to get inside the 10, the Tide fell just short of the mark and gave the ball back over to the Herons still down by one.
The Herons immediately went to work with just under two minutes left in the half.
A handoff up the middle saw them break open a 50-yard run before Rowe made a tackle at the Tide 40.
Two plays later, another young player made a huge impact for the Tide.
Freshman linebacker Kenny Pickens, son of Tide defensive coordinator Kenny Pickens, made a great play on a screen and intercepted a Heron pass.
Pickens returned the ball inside the Brantley 35, but a block in the back penalty brought the return to the Tide 47.
Up to this point in the game, Tide workhorse sophomore Ahmari Douglas, who is on pace for a 1,000-yard rushing season, had had a relatively quiet game.
He decided to change that as he took a sweep to the right and raced 46 yards for the score to put his team up 12-7 going into halftime.
The Tide tried to surprise the Herons with an onside to open the second half, but the Herons recovered near midfield.
That allowed them to go down the field in nine plays and take nearly four minutes off the clock before getting into the endzone to go up 13-12.
Rowe fielded the kickoff, went right and reversed field to his left and nearly broke the return open to set his team up in Heron territory at the 44.
It would seem that the Tide might continue to feed Douglas, but it was Saddler who made big plays all night for the Tide.
On first down from the 31, Saddler picked up 19 yards to the 13.
On the next play, Ansorena-Smith got into the endzone for the third time this year to put his team up 18-13.
Phillips converted the two-point attempt to make the score 20-13.
The Herons seemingly took the momentum immediately away from the Tide as they returned the ensuing kickoff 67 yards for the touchdown.
A block in the back penalty, however, brought the ball back to the Long 45.
Brantley County continue to pick up chunk yards down the field and eventually set up shop inside the Tide ten as the fourth quarter began.
The Herons capped off the drive with a slant over the middle to Middleton to get the score.
However, the Tide remained in the lead after the missed extra point made the score 20-19.
The Tide took over at their own 27 and knew their main goal was to eat up a lot of clock, but with just under 11 minutes still left in the game, a score would help their chances of winning as well.
They allowed Douglas to get some work as he picked up 7-10 yards on his first three carries, which put the Tide on the logo at midfield.
He got the call one more time, found a hole and it was off to the races as Douglas went 50 yards to the house.
The two-point conversion was very important as it would make the score a two-possession difference.
Douglas got the handoff again and powered his way into the endzone to make the score 28-19 with just over six minutes left in the game.
The last half-quarter was a battle of attrition for the Tide as their defense needed to make enough stops to win and the offense needed to wear down the Herons and put away the game.
Three times the defense came up with stops on fourth down before the Tide were able to go into the victory formation and run out the rest of the clock.
With the win, the Tide are now 4-4 on the year and 1-1 in the region.
The have reached the four=win mark for just the fourth time in team history, with their last dating back to 2012 when the team went a team-best 5-5.
The win also puts the Tide on the inside track to make the state playoffs for the first time ever.
Barring a region win for the Herons in their final two games, the Tide have clinched at least the four seed in Region 1-AAA.
They will host defending AAA state champions Pierce County Friday, October 22 for their final home game of the regular season as senior football players, cheerleaders, managers, and band members will be honored prior to the game.