With a win two weeks ago over Ridgeland High School and last week’s thrilling 31-28 last-second win over Northwest Whitfield, Dalton finds itself alone atop the Sub-region 7B-4A standings. The Catamounts’ final three sub-region games are against teams with a combined four wins and region observers are looking forward to a championship game between Dalton and Cedartown on Nov. 8.
But Dalton coach Matt Land is quick to point out that his team hasn’t accomplished any of its goals yet and tonight’s homecoming game with LaFayette is a dangerous one.
“You’ve heard me say this before, but whatever the best game is that a team can play, we are going to get it,” Land said. “This LaFayette team is one that is more than capable, and it seems like teams that are missing something find it the week they play us.”
In other local games tonight, Coahulla Creek visits Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and North Murray hosts Ringgold in Region 5-3A matchups; Murray County welcomes Calhoun in Region 7-2A action; and Northwest Whitfield visits Ridgeland while Southeast Whitfield hosts Heritage-Catoosa in 7B-4A matchups. All kickoffs are set for 7:30 p.m.
The Catamounts (4-2, 2-0) have bounced back from opening the season with a pair of losses to win four straight games. A lot of the turnaround has been credited to the return of running back Kelvis Rhodes, who has opened up the offense with his big-play potential. After missing both of the losses with a shoulder injury, Rhodes has rushed for 497 yards and nine touchdowns in the four wins.
But it has also been about more than just the return of one player.
“It is two things,” Land said. “It is confidence of the players in what we as coaches have been building to each week. They see the wisdom of the coaches and what they have been preaching each week.
“Secondly, they needed to develop some confidence in themselves. They have kind of developed a realistic expectation of what they can and cannot do. Now they have confidence in our scheme and in themselves.”
Even though the Cats lost quarterback Jase Chastain to a broken leg, the team is as healthy as it has been all year.
“We are as healthy as we can be after playing six games,” Land said. “We are still waiting to hear back on fullbck Jacob Bartoo, who is out with a high ankle sprain and those things can take a week to six weeks. The rest of it is dings that you are going to have this time of the year.”
LaFayette is in its first season under coach Chad Fisher, who came to the school after going 28-40 at Gordon Central. In Fisher’s final three seasons with the Warriors, Godron Central was 20-12 with two trips to the state playoffs.
While wins haven’t come yet and the Ramblers were on the wrong end of Heritage ending a 15-game losing streak last week, Land said Fisher will have the Ramblers in the win column soon.
“They are a team that is very similar to Ridgeland with a lot of talent and speed and size and experience,” Land said. “Coach Fisher is trying to move to an offense to take advantage of the speed that they have, and it has been a progression. He will do a good job over there.”
Quarterback Lance Estus has completed 34 of 44 passes for 434 yards and five touchdowns in the Ramblers’ last two games.
Coahulla Creek (2-4, 1-2) at Lakeview-Fort O. (2-4, 1-2)
The Colts head to Fort Oglethorpe looking for their second win in as many games, and Coahulla Creek coach Jared Hamlin welcomed last week’s open date — it provided some needed rest for his team as well as the time to work on details that needed fine-tuning.
One of those things is Coahulla Creek’s inefficiency when it comes to turning trips into the red zone into trips into the end zone. It’s not a new problem for the Colts, who have been working on improving scoring from week to week, but it’s one Hamlin is ready to solve.
“It’s funny because it’s always something a little different each time,” Hamlin said. “It’s either a penalty, or a sack or a dropped ball. It’s easy to fix something when it’s the same thing all the time, but it hasn’t been. The bottom line is when we get down there we have to be able to run the football. We’ve been fairly successful moving the ball from 20 to 20 ... (but) we can’t settle for field goal attempts.”
Another major focus for Coahulla Creek tonight will be stopping LFO running back Jacob Gilbert, who Hamlin sees as one of the better ball carriers is the region.
“(Gilbert) is a heck of a back,” Hamlin said. “He’s as good as any back we’ve seen this year. That will be a challenge defensively. It’s all about fundamentals. Our guys have to trust their reads defensively, they can’t freelance.”
Coahulla Creek, which beat Gordon Central 14-6 two weeks ago, will once again look to senior Cameron Burton to shoulder the load in the running game. Burton is the team leader in carries (83), rushing yards (409) and yards per carry (4.93).
Hamlin sees the importance of having success in the running game to set the tone.
“We’ve got to be able to run the football this week,” Hamlin said. “We’ve got to make that happen this week. It’s frustrating, but the kids want to make those plays and they want to be good. Hopefully we can work out those frustrations a little this week.”
Calhoun (5-1, 3-0) at Murray County (1-5, 0-3)
There’s an obvious gap between the current state of things for Calhoun — a state power that has advanced to five straight Class 2A title games — and Murray County, which faces the Yellow Jackets tonight for homecoming.
Murray County first-year coach Chad Brewer, though, sounds like a man welcoming Calhoun and the challenge it will no doubt provide his Indians.
“For our guys, it’s a chance to see how they measure up against the best,” Brewer said. “They might be surprised what they can do if they put their minds to it. Calhoun is well-coached in every phase of the game. They have what you want your players to be. If you’re looking for something that they don’t do well, you will be looking for a long time.”
Calhoun dominated Murray County 69-0 last season en route to its 12th straight region championship and 14th consecutive appearance in the state playoffs.
Calhoun suffered its first regular season loss since 2008 when it lost 42-7 to Class 4A’s Carrollton earlier this year, but nonetheless brings a team comparable to the 2012 state runner-up. The Yellow Jackets are ranked fifth in the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class 2A state poll.
“We’re better on defense,” Yellow Jackets coach Hal Lamb said. “We’re not as good on offense. Our main thing about this game is to worry about ourselves and not slop around.”
Senior quarterback Fields Chapman — a starting linebacker last year — leads the high-powered spread attack. Wide receiver Tydus Curtis, another senior, is his primary receiver. On a big-play defense, senior end Austin Byrd has eight sacks.
Murray County quarterback Justin Smith has rushed for 412 yards on 92 carries this season while completing 76 of 135 passes for 660 yards and five touchdowns, including two to Petee Waldon during last week’s loss at Model.
Ringgold (5-1, 3-0) at North Murray (1-5, 0-3)
The Mountaineers know just how dangerous Ringgold senior quarterback Slade Dale can be — they saw it firsthand a year ago.
Dale rushed for 288 yards and two touchdowns, added a touchdown toss to Dallas McGee and finished with a whopping 368 all-purpose yards in a 35-15 victory in Ringgold in 2012.
Dale, who has committed to the University of Georgia’s baseball program, will lead the Tigers into Mountaineer Stadium riding a three-game winning streak.
“When you see an athlete like that, it’s scary,” said North Murray coach David Gann, who was the offensive coordinator at Ringgold before taking over the Mountaineers in 2012. “They’ve got a tangible that nobody else has, and that’s an SEC-type athlete playing quarterback.”
Dale averaged 240-plus all-purpose yards in 2012 and so far this season is averaging 246.2 yards of total offense with 1,477 yards and 16 touchdowns. That’s a big reason Ringgold is tied for first with Cartersville (6-0, 3-0) in the Region 5-3A standings and averages 35 points per game.
“He’s a kid that drives our entire offensive system,” Tigers coach Robert Akins said.
Dale, however, is not the entire offense. Running backs Kile Sholl and D.L. Goins have combined for 375 yards and 10 touchdowns. Sholl is the Tigers’ leading receiver with 17 receptions for 331 yards — a 19.5-yard average — and three scores.
“They have two types of backs,” Gann said. “Goins is a power back, a real beat-and-bang-you kind of guy. Sholl is a speedy take-it-to-the-house back. They’re a lot to handle for a lot of folks.”
Defensively, Ringgold relies heavily on linebacker Dakota Baer, who leads the unit with 86 tackles, seven for a loss. Also a threat to an opponent’s offensive cohesiveness is 6-foot-4-inch, 263-pound defensive end Zach Morris and his 49 tackles. Six of those stops are for a loss and he also has six sacks. He has been offered a scholarship to Duke.
“Those are two special kids,” Gann said.
Northwest (5-1, 1-1) at Ridgeland (2-4, 1-1)
At some point between last Friday’s heartbreaking 31-28 loss to rival Dalton and tonight, the Bruins needed to pick themselves up and begin looking forward.
“The first remedy was getting back out to practice well,” Northwest coach Josh Robinson said. “ ... This isn’t coachspeak. I was very honest with them. I told them if they didn’t want to work, they could leave. I’d think higher of them (for quitting) than if they just moped around.
“We probably, by far, had our best football practice of the year. The next thing is going out and getting over the emotions. Regardless of what happened in the Dalton game — we obviously would’ve liked to win — the Ridgeland game holds the same importance.”
Both teams are 1-1 in sub-region play and tied with Heritage and Southeast in the 7B-4A standings. The Bruins dominated the Generals 49-7 two weeks ago and the Panthers beat the Raiders 35-20 last week, meaning Northwest and Ridgeland have an edge in the five-game race for the sub-region’s No. 2 seed and the Region 7-4A “play-in” games, which match the No. 2 seed from each sub-region against the No. 3 seed from the other in their 10th games to decide the region’s third and fourth seeds in the state playoffs.
“In a numbers game, every win is big when trying to get to game 10, where it means something,” Panthers coach Mark Mariakis said.
Ridgeland struggled through its first five games — the fifth a 28-0 loss to Dalton — but rebounded with what might have been a season-saving win against Southeast. While Ridgeland is on a seven-season playoff streak — and made it to last year’s Class 4A state title game — Northwest hasn’t made the state playoffs since 2009, two years before Robinson became the coach.
No one on the Bruins’ roster has experienced playing in the state postseason.
“To me, the biggest thing is we still control our fate to make the playoffs in some capacity,” Robinson said. “That, to me, is what makes this game a gigantic game.”
Heritage (1-5, 1-1) at Southeast (3-3, 1-1)
The Generals ended a 15-game losing streak with a victory over LaFayette last week, and Southeast coach Sean Gray said Heritage — despite its record — is a dangerous team.
“We have to be prepared for a team coming in here feeling good,” Gray said. “They hit a couple of trick plays and blocked two punts, and they played with a nothing-to-lose attitude, and they will come in here with the same attitude. We have to be prepared for just about anything.”
Heritage coach Tim James, who has been the only head football coach at the school in its six-year existence, knows the emotional high his team reached with the win over the Ramblers could be a problem this week.
“You just preach and hope they are listening,” James said. “We had some things go our way and made a few more plays than the other team. We had some success, and it has been so long since we have had that success, you really don’t know how they will respond to that.”
The Raiders are coming off of a disappointing loss to Ridgeland and have no room for error if they want to keep their hopes for the state playoffs alive. Although games against Northwest and Dalton loom on the sub-region schedule, Gray said the Raiders must remain focused on Heritage and continue to improve.
“The thing about us is we have to keep making strides,” Gray said. “We have a chance to go home with a winning record in mid-October. We feel like we are making strides. It isn’t happening as fast as we want it to, but we are still looking for that signature win.”
Gray said sophomore quarterback Will Swantic will be at full speed this week after twice leaving last week’s loss to the Panthers after hard hits. Gray also said the outcome of this week’s game will depend on how the defense responds after allowing 35 points last week.
“We’ve challenged our defense this week, and we have had some physical practices,” Gray said.
Compiled by sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming, Dave Gordon and Doug Hawley.