PORT ST. JOE — The team thought to have limited chances when the 2013 football season began took full advantage of its opportunity Friday night.
A Port St. Joe squad that has seemingly played against the odds each week dismantled Class 1A fourth-ranked Liberty County 24-7 at Shark Field to claim the District 4-1A title and a home game when the playoffs begin in two weeks.
In a defensive struggle — the Bulldogs enjoyed a yardage advantage of 200-80 — Port St. Joe made the key defensive stops while Dwayne Griggs scored three touchdowns, including an electric kickoff return.
The second half was emblematic of the whole.
The Bulldogs marched 65 yards in six plays early in the fourth quarter to score, but surrounded the drive by giving up the ball on downs three times and having two other drives ended by the only turnovers of the game, a fumble and interception.
“I thought we came ready to play,” said Port St. Joe coach Chuck Gannon. “We were really focused in all week in practice. The kids remembered last year when they came from 19 points down.
“You keep telling them they are playing the fourth-ranked team in the state. We have to make a statement. I thought our kids did that tonight.”
With the district title within grasp the past two weeks, the Tiger Sharks (7-2 overall, 3-0 in district play) outscored West Gadsden and Liberty County 41-10.
“They just outplayed us,” said Liberty County coach Grant Grantham. “They were the better team. We missed some things tonight, but we also did not block well. I don’t know what we could have done differently; they just outplayed us.”
The Tiger Sharks struck on their first drive, taking advantage of a 4-yard punt that gave them the ball at the Bulldog 41.
Port St. Joe drove to a 6-yard touchdown run by Griggs in seven plays, punctuated by a 35-bolt from Jarkeice Davis (who a game-high 75 yards rushing) on third-and-16 from the 45.
Drew Lacour added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Liberty County marched into Tiger Shark territory on its next drive, but sputtered behind a holding call and Port St. Joe took over at its 34 after stopping the Bulldogs on downs.
Consuming 15 plays and more than 6:30 of the clock, the Tiger Sharks marched to the 1 before Griggs scored on a sweep, barely sneaking inside the pylon.
Griggs fueled the drive with a 7-yard run on fourth-and-6 at the Bulldog 24 and Davis added a spark when he weaved 13 yards through the middle of the Liberty County defense on a third-and-8 from the 15.
Lacour’s extra point made it 14-0 and the teams traded punts before intermission.
Gannon said after the game that Liberty County was a good comeback team, but the hill got much steeper on the second-half kickoff.
Having deferred after winning the coin toss to open the game, the Tiger Sharks got first crack in the third quarter and in 13 seconds Griggs turned the kickoff into a 86-yard sprint to the end zone, breaking clean through the wedge before heading down the right sideline untouched.
Lacour made it 21-0.
“That return was big,” Gannon said. “We know they can come back, they did last year, and that allowed us to take a bit of wind out of their sails.”
Liberty County pulled to 21-7 on a 9-yard run by William Hayes in the first minute of the fourth period.
But on the Bulldogs’ next drive, following a 50-yard punt by Griggs that pinned them at their 1, Hayes was stripped of the ball by Davis with T.J. Williams recovering to set up an 18-yard field goal by Lacour.
Marcell Johnson ended Liberty County’s final possession when he intercepted Micah McCaskill (7 of 18 for 116 yards) near midfield.
Less than a minute later, the Tiger Sharks were dancing as a group, celebrating a district championship.
Port St. Joe finishes the regular season next Friday at Arnold and will host a region playoff opener the following week.