WINDER - Even more than making the playoffs a fourth consecutive time, the Apalachee football team's goal this season was to win its first region championship.
Mission accomplished - barely.
With Friday's 24-23 survival of visiting Heritage, the unbeaten Wildcats (8-0, 8-0) secured their place in Region 8-AAAA championship history, regardless of their final two outcomes against Madison County and Salem.
The victory, Apalachee's second consecutive by a point, entitles the Wildcats to host the first round of the playoffs, something fifth-year coach Shane Davis has long wanted for his players and the Apalachee community.
"We never thought for a minute it was unattainable," Davis said of the region crown. "To say it's big is an understatement."
Interestingly, Davis considered his team's emotionally draining 42-41 overtime victory over Loganville the preceding week something too emotional to overcome. Elated by a dramatic victory that assured a playoff berth, he needed to settle players down during the week to focus on Heritage and the task of winning the region.
"We had to do a lot of coming down off our high," he said. "We had to fight (during practice) to get back into a football frame of mind."
Similar to how it beat Loganville by stopping a two-point conversion run in overtime, the Wildcats pressured Heritage into a bad extra-point snap, leaving holder Thomas Casey unable to set the ball for kicker Tyler Peoples with 1:50 left. Once the Wildcats regained possession, they simply ran out the clock to remain the region's only unbeaten team.
The Patriots came as close as they would on quarterback Andre Wilson's 1-yard scoring leap, but for a second consecutive time, when it mattered most, the Wildcats got the key result.
Heritage (2-6, 2-6) trailed Apalachee just 14-10 at halftime, though it seemed initially that the Wildcats might run away from the Patriots.
Jon Lee capped Apalachee's game-opening possession on just the fifth play, running 31 yards for a 7-0 lead with 9:47 remaining in the quarter. Mike Norman then punctuated Apalachee's second possession with a 24-yard scoring pass to John Ansley for a 14-0 advantage with less than nine minutes gone.
Tyrone Brown ignited the Patriots with a 57-yard run to the Wildcats' 20-yard line, and after Chase Davis' run to Apalachee's 1, Wilson dove in to make the score 14-7.
Apalachee's lead was slimmed to 14-10 on Tyler Peoples' 26-yard field goal a second before intermission, but Quincy Gibson's 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown padded the Wildcats' lead back to 21-10 less than a minute into the third quarter. Garry Peters' 32-yard touchdown catch slimmed Apalachee's advantage to 21-17 with 4:14 left in the third, but Guy Hunt's 32-yard field goal made it 24-17 Wildcats with 7:14 remaining.