Football: Milton bounces back, beats top ranked Virginia team to remain perfect in Freedom Bowl

By Zach Shugan

MILTON, Ga. — Four of four.

Milton has now played in the Freedom Bowl four times, and the Eagles have won every time. Thursday night, Milton won 34-14 over Life Christian Academy, one of the top-ranked teams in Virginia, to kick off the fourth annual Freedom Bowl. Perhaps more significant, though, was how the Eagles responded following a 40-21 loss to North Cobb the previous week in a game nationally televised by ESPN.

“We were all embarrassed last week,” Milton head coach Adam Clack said. “It’s that simple. Coaches, players, every one of us. We knew we didn’t put our best product on the field … I’m very proud that we were able to take a loss and learn a lesson.”

Milton, ranked No. 5 in Class 7A entering the week, has nothing to be embarrassed about from Thursday night’s win. The Eagles dominated a Life Christian team ranked No. 2 in Virginia and No. 133 in the nation by High School Football America.

The Eagles took control early, scoring on a short Jordan McDonald touchdown run on their second drive of the game. A banged up McDonald carried the ball less than 10 times for less than 20 yards, a far cry from his usual totals, but that didn’t slow down Milton’s offense.

Senior quarterback Devin Farrell passed for 235 yards and four touchdowns. Three touchdowns were caught by sophomore Debron Gatling, who finished with five receptions for 104 yards.

In the second quarter, Farrell and Gatling connected for two touchdowns. The first touchdown pass came on 4th and 5 at LCA’s 30-yard line. The second time, a scrambling Farrell found Gatling wide open near the goal line for a 24-yard touchdown.

Milton sophomore Debron Gatling (#6) caught three touchdowns in Milton’s Freedom Bowl win over Life Christian Academy. (Zach Shugan)

Combined with the performance from the Eagles’ defense, which forced Life Christian to punt on all four of its drives in the first half, Milton led 21-0 at halftime.

Following the break, Milton came out of the locker room and picked up right where it left off.

Farrell and Gatling connected on 4th and long for a touchdown, again, to add to the Eagles’ lead. Then, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Farrell hit Jonathan Murray on a short pass that went 55 yards for a touchdown.

In total, Milton’s offense tallied over 300 yards and 5 touchdowns. The defense, which Clack fittingly described as “swarming” and “smothering”, allowed only one score — a 1-yard run on 4th and goal late in the game — and came up with interceptions from Robert Billings and Bryce Thornton. Life Christian’s other points came via a defensive touchdown in the game’s final two minutes.

Milton senior AJ Crawford (#38) and junior Wyatt Smalley (#46) team up for a sack early in Milton’s Freedom Bowl win over Life Christian Academy. (Zach Shugan)

The Eagles entered Thursday night undefeated in Freedom Bowl games, with wins over Cardinal Gibbons (FL), Alpharetta and Johns Creek the previous three years. They kept that record unblemished and improved their regular season record to 2-1.

Following back to back games against North Cobb and Life Christian, two of the top-ranked teams in their respective states, the gauntlet doesn’t end for Milton. If anything, it picks up intensity.

Next week, the Eagles will bus to Philadelphia to take on St. Joseph’s Prep. The Hawks, who open their regular season Sept. 3, are ranked No. 1 in Pennsylvania and No. 9 in the nation by High School Football America. Milton fell from No. 43 to No. 81 in the same rankings with its loss to No. 72 North Cobb.

It’s a matchup that’ll test the Eagles greatly, but for Clack, the significance of the outcome on the field pales in comparison to the value of the time they’ll spend with each other.

“This is where we put the finishing touches on forging our team,” he said. “You can’t put a value on the time we’re going to spend together and the experiences we’re going to share. Something as simple as eating a cheesesteak in Philadelphia together is something you’ll remember forever. And that’s how you go from the neighborhood to the brotherhood.”

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