CONYERS - To borrow a line from that legendary twister of words, Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again for Salem against Clarke Central on Friday night.
For the second straight year, the Gladiators (5-2) rallied from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Seminoles (3-3) on a touchdown pass in the game's final minute.
This time, quarterback Martay Mattox found Braxton Hudson on a 63-yard scoring toss with 43 seconds remaining as Clarke Central completed its comeback and secured a 23-20 victory.
Last year in Athens, the Gladiators prevailed 22-21 on a touchdown pass with six seconds left in the contest.
"Believe me, we still remember last year," Salem coach Chad Estes said. "Unfortunately, we're going to remember this year, too."
The Seminoles had all the momentum in the first quarter and built a 14-0 lead after scoring two touchdowns 11 seconds apart.
Quarterback JoJo Smith set up the first score with runs of 16 and 24 yards before a 16-yard pass to Tyler Askew.
On the next play, Smith scored up the middle from 2 yards out with 4:44 left in the first frame.
And then, the Seminoles caught a break when Breon Prad recovered a short kickoff at the Clarke Central 28.
Smith wasted little time taking advantage of the opportunity, hooking up with a leaping Bradley Moon for a 28-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 advantage at 4:33.
In fact, the Seminoles had another chance to score when Prad recovered a Clarke Central muff on the 23.
But this time, Salem kicker Daniel Whitson missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.
"It was the first time we've gotten out to a fast start all year," Estes said. "I wish we could have converted that other opportunity."
Clarke Central's Adam Erickson hit a 43-yard field goal with 2:40 remaining to cut Salem's lead to 14-3 at the half.
The Gladiators closed the deficit to 14-10 on Mattox's 10-yard touchdown pass to Davonta Appleby at 6:51 of the third quarter.
However, Salem restored its momentum late in the third quarter. Smith found a wide open Jordon Trippe for a 40-yard gain to the Clarke Central 32.
On the final play of the third quarter, Smith shook loose for a 24-yard gain down to the 2. The senior quarterback had a team-high 89 yards rushing for Salem.
Julian McLean restored the Seminoles' double-digit lead with a 2-yard touchdown run to open the final stanza. Whitson's extra point was blocked, but Salem held a 20-10 advantage.
Mattox scored on a 12-yard run for the Gladiators with 4:03 left in the game. After a bad snap on the extra point, Salem held a 20-16 lead.
After picking up a first down, the Seminoles appeared ready to run out the clock, but three straight penalties, a procedure, a holding and a chop block, push them back and saved valuable time on the clock for Clarke Central.
The Gladiators took over on their own 37 with 1:16 remaining and Mattox and Hudson completed the rally two plays later.
"I really thought we were going to run the clock out. I don't know where those penalties came from at the end. We hadn't had any all night," Estes said. "Our kids played with great heart and great effort. I take full responsibility for the loss. They (our kids) did everything they could, they did what we asked them to do. Clarke Central just has a good football team and we came up a little bit short. But don't fault our kids. Clarke made the play at the end, hats off to them for making it."
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.