ATLANTA — There were no overtimes, no restless moments, no need to worry.

The only thing the Hillgrove faithful had to wonder was how big of a win the Lady Hawks were going to have.

The answer was a 20-6 margin over Marietta on Thursday in an all-Cobb County Class AAAAAAA flag football state championship game at Center Parc Stadium.

It was the first championship for the 2-year-old program, and just the second team title in Hillgrove’s history, joining the 2019 girls cross county program.

Lauren Render controlled the game from her safety position, intercepting three passes, in addition to scoring two touchdowns and completely nullifying any chance of Marietta (17-3) passing the ball more than 5 yards downfield.

“Miss Render is the best,” Hillgrove coach Daniel Pinckney said. “She is the best flag football player in Georgia hands down, and today, she proved it.”

It was a performance that set a new standard for the Hillgrove (17-1), and it was the final salve to heal the wound of letdown in the 2020 state championship. The Lady Hawks lost last year’s title to West Forsyth, falling 26-25 in double overtime.

This year, they finished their unfinished business and left Pinckney almost at a loss for words.

“It means everything,” he said. “Last year, we built a team during a pandemic. We started with six players and hoped to get six more so we could field a team. It was a bumpy ride last year. Losing hurt a lot.”

Using the memory as motivation, Pinckney said the team’s motto for this year was “Forward Always,” and it showed.

Hillgrove went 12-1 during the regular season, only twice did it give up more than seven points in a game, and it posted eight shutouts. The last team to score more than seven was Marietta in the final game of the regular season — a 26-20 win for the Lady Hawks in overtime.

It was the second time Hillgrove had beaten Marietta this season, which set the backdrop for Thursday’s Part 3. It is hard to beat a team twice in one season, let alone three times, but that did not prove to be the case Thursday.

On the first play of Marietta’s second drive, quarterback Claire Hennessey tried to throw deep. Render, playing as much as 30 yards behind the line of scrimmage, broke on the ball, intercepted it and returned it 35 yards for the game’s first touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

The play set the tone for the rest of the game.

“It set everything,” Render said. “You could hear the stands and our players. Going up at the very beginning — I mean, that’s all you can ask for.”

It was still 7-0 when the second half started, but the Lady Hawks opened with an 11-play, 65-yard drive that took nearly 6 minutes off the clock. On the march, quarterback Lacey Carder ran three times for 16 yards and completed passes to four different receivers. Jasmine Blackburn, who finished the game with three receptions for 19 yards and three carries for 10, caught an 11-yard pass for a first down.

Emily Bond caught a 10-yard pass on third down to move the ball to the Marietta 1, and Render capped it off with a 1-yard touchdown catch. The extra point was no good, but Hillgrove still had a 13-0 lead with 14:10 to play.

Bond finished the game with three catches for 45 yards, while Render had four for 15 yards.

The Marietta offense finally found some life, connecting on short passes in the flat. It led to Hennessey leading the Lady Blue Devils on a 12-play drive, which included a 14-yard pass to Cate Gruehn, five passes to McKaela Walker — including a key 4-yard fourth-down completion to extend the drive — and a 10-yard run by Marley Quammie.

Hennessey capped the drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Laila Perryman to cut the deficit to 13-6.

Hennessey finished the day 12-of-18 for 69 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Walker caught seven passes for 32 yards, and Quammie had four carries for 16 yards.

With 7:12 to play, Marietta needed a stop, and it needed to slow down the Carder-fueled running game. The Lady Blue Devils could not.

On the first play of the ensuing drive, Carder ran for 9 yards, and the next play of the game almost secured the state title. The first-year flag football player went around the left side and eluded two tacklers. Breaking into open field, Carder, who finished with 119 yards on the ground, went for 49 yards down to the Marietta 7.

“My plan was just to get the first down,” she said. “My cue is to stop running when I hear the whistle. When I didn’t hear the whistle, I just kept going.

Two plays later, Carder took a broken play and turned it into an 11-yard touchdown run.

It was then she and her teammates could begin to celebrate.

“It was designed to be a pass play,” Carder said, “but they covered our wide receivers. I saw the gap and just took it.”

Carder also completed 10 of 12 passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in a near-perfect performance that Pinckney could really appreciate.

“(Carder is) as cool as they come,” he said. “I’ve had two great quarterbacks here — her and Lindsey Bell. (Carder) had enormous shoes to fill, and she said, ‘They feel good to me.’”

With less than 3 minutes to play, Marietta tried one last deep pass. In almost perfect symmetry, it fell into the arms of Render and allowed Hillgrove to run out the clock.

In her final game, Render said she believed the three interceptions may have been a career high.

If it was, great, she said, but if not, it did not matter because the senior walked off the field carrying the state championship trophy.

“It means the world,” she said.


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