MARIETTA — Wins don’t have to be pretty.
What mattered most to Wheeler on Friday was beating Sprayberry 10-7 at Corky Kell Stadium — the Wildcats’ first season-opening win since 2003.
Wheeler (1-0) won despite racking up 11 penalties for nearly 100 yards, including one that negated a 62-yard touchdown run by Kahlem Looney in the second quarter. The Wildcats also lost a fumble 1 yard away from the end zone on a botched snap, ending an 18-play drive that took up most of the second quarter.
However, the Wildcats capitalized on Sprayberry’s miscues in the fourth quarter, and their defense accounted for the game-winning touchdown with 6:01 left, when Allen Artis picked off a Shane Young pass and darted 25 yards into the end zone.
“In the second half, (Sprayberry) came out, and their defense had our number,” Wheeler coach Mike Collins said. “Fortunately, we were able to get our defense to make a play. It was a hard-fought game from both sides.”
It was the 44th meeting between the east Cobb schools, but the first since 2007. Wheeler leads the series 31-13.
Sprayberry (0-1) clamped down on Wheeler defensively after allowing 215 first-half yards. The Wildcats had great field position against the Yellow Jackets throughout the half, but penalties prevented them from scoring.
Looney rushed for more than 100 first-half yards and finished the game with 117. He opened with a 43-yard scamper that led to J.D. Barron’s 38-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead Wheeler carried into the second half.
After Sprayberry managed just 41 first-half yards, the Yellow Jackets started finding holes in the second half and scored the game’s only offensive touchdown late in the third quarter.
Rakeem Myricks, who finished with 52 [75?] rushing yards, had a 25-yard carry early in the drive. A 23-yard burst from Corey Cooper put the Yellow Jackets on Wheeler’s 4-yard line, and quarterback Torrey Richardson finished it off by running up the middle and diving for a 4-yard touchdown.
Although Sprayberry couldn’t get much going early in the fourth quarter, its defense had control of Wheeler — that is, before momentum turned on Artis’ interception return.
“I saw the play (develop) and tried to break on it,” Artis said. “My instincts took over, and I took (the ball).”
Elyjah Marrow’s interception for Wheeler on Sprayberry’s next drive was also key.
The Yellow Jackets had taken command of the drive, moving from their own 22 to the Wheeler 26 with help from a facemask penalty against the Wildcats. On first-and-15, Young attempted a long touchdown pass, but Marrow was there to pick it off.
With 4:16 left in the game, Wheeler’s offense chewed out the clock and got a crucial first down with when Sprayberry was flagged for a facemask penalty with 1:27 left.
“We have a lot of inexperience, but I’m proud of this team,” Sprayberry coach Billy Shackelford said. “What I’m disappointed in is that we can’t get through a week without having one unproductive practice. Could that have made a difference in a couple of plays? The answer is yes.”