STORY BY CORY WOODROOF | PHOTOS BY DEB SCALLY
Next fall, Graham Barton will head out to Duke to play offensive tackle in the ACC.
Friday night, though, he made the game-altering strip-sack that got Ravenwood’s second wind underneath it after a sluggish spell against visiting Pulaski Academy, a state title powerhouse from Arkansas.
Elite prospect Reggie Grimes II scooped up the ball after the fumble for Ravenwood and helped break a late 40-40 tie (7:42 to go in the game) to give the Raptors a needed spike of momentum.
“The play was about to be a bust,” Barton said. “We were a d-lineman short. As soon as I heard that, I ran out there. I got about a twenty-yard head start onto the field.”
He credits his defensive line coach Andrew Elrod for his preaching the fundamentals.
“We’ll be doing strip-sack drills all day in practice,” Barton said. “I’ve never really known why we did it so much, but I’m glad it all paid off.”
Ravenwood withstood Pulaski’s notorious go-for-broke game plan to get a 61-47 home victory and remain perfect on the 2019 season.
The night was a special one for the Raptors, as it saw receiver Andrew Mason tie the state’s record for receiving touchdowns in a game with seven.
“I just knew,” Mason said with a smile that he was going to have a big night.
Mason’s monster performance (355 yards on eight receptions, eight touchdowns) came as the receiver had a cast wrapped around his left wrist, an injury sustained in the team’s Week Two win against Blackman.
“I got hit from behind and tried to brace myself,” he said of his impacted fracture. “It’s not too bad. It’s kind of like a jammed wrist. But the doctor said I could play with a cast on, so I’m going to suit up.”
Raptors quaterback Brian Garcia tossed Mason all of those touchdowns, tied for fourth overall in Tennessee state history for touchdowns thrown.
“When Andrew’s singled up, it’s tough for the defender because he’s so quick out of his break,” Garcia said of his top target. “When he catches, his acceleration out of it is insane as well.”
The Raptors got off to a roaring 21-0 start, all scores from Garcia to Mason, before Pulaski finally answered, but missed the early two-point conversion.
If that approach confuses you, know that Pulaski Academy’s style confuses many. They gamble relentlessly with special teams and fourth downs, nary punting or not trying for an onside kick or extra two points on a touchdown.
Their offensive game plan thrives on intermediate passing and running and with explosive plays in the middle of the field.
Their style began to whittle away at Ravenwood’s vaunted defense, and they were able to scramble back for a 17 points before half. The only problem for Pulaski was Mason, who would score two more touchdowns to get Ravenwood positioned well for the second half, 34-17.
He’d find his sixth touchdown midway through the third quarter to give the Raptors a comfortable 40-24 lead heading into the game’s final stanza.
But through some success with onside kicking (which gassed Ravenwood’s defense with too much time on the field) and speedy drives, Pulaski would erase the margin and tie the game at the top of the fourth.
Then Barton’s defensive drills paid off, and Ravenwood never looked back and looked ahead to the history books.
“It’s very difficult,” Raptors head coach Matt Daniels said of taking on Pulaski’s unorthodox playbook. “It’s a huge challenge, and our kids knew that and our staff knew that going in.
“We’ve got to preach focus. As soon as you lose focus against a team like this, they take advantage.”
He likens the style to that of a video game, where the user can maximize every opportunity for a splash play that abounds.
“We don’t play like that,” he said. “It’s hard to match and mesh philosophies. But they stayed focused for long enough, and we did enough to win tonight. I’m just so proud of them for that.”
The Raptors will go from one emotional game to the other, with archrival Brentwood hosting the annual regular season Battle of the Woods next Friday.
The series was 1-1 last year, with Brentwood taking the regular season edition and Ravenwood evening the score in the playoffs.
“The one good thing, with Brentwood, you don’t really have to say anything special,” Daniels said of preparing for the Bruins. “The boys are ready to go. It’s probably going to be our best week of practice in terms of focus from the get-go.
“So I’m just excited. It seems like yesterday we were just playing Brentwood in the playoffs last year, and I’m excited to be in that atmosphere again, too. We’re so lucky to be experiencing in these first five weeks such a cool environment of high school football. So we’re definitely counting our blessings as far as that’s concerned.
“It’s going to be another fun one next week.”