Thanks to a little help last week, Southeast Whitfield can still take a straightforward path to the high school football state playoffs.
But to travel that road, the Raiders first must move a Big Red bulldozer out of the way.
Southeast takes on Dalton tonight at Harmon Field in a Sub-region 7B-4A matchup that won’t affect the host Catamounts (6-2, 4-0) in the postseason picture but will have plenty of implications for the Raiders (4-4, 2-2).
The Cats clinched the sub-region title last week, assuring themselves of a spot in next week’s Region 7-4A title game as well as the right to host in the opening round of the state playoffs. With a win tonight, Southeast will finish as the sub-region’s No. 3 seed and earn a spot in next week’s region crossover games that will determine the region’s final two berths for the state playoffs.
The No. 2 team from each of 7-4A’s sub-regions will play the No. 3 team from the other next week, with the winners advancing to state and the losers done for the season.
In other games tonight involving teams in Murray and Whitfield counties, Christian Heritage travels to Trion in Sub-region 6A-A play, Murray County hosts Pepperell in Region 7-2A competition, Coahulla Creek visits North Murray in a Region 5-3A contest and Northwest Whitfield welcomes LaFayette in another Sub-region 7B-4A clash.
Southeast is alone in third place in the sub-region standings despite last week’s 45-28 loss to Northwest. The reason why is because previously winless LaFayette beat Ridgeland 32-29.
“Oh man, what a nice surprise that was,” Raiders coach Sean Gray said. “It’s about time we got some help down here at Southeast.”
It might not be the end of Gray and the Raiders hoping for breaks. If they lose tonight, they can still finish as the sub-region’s No. 3 team and have the chance to earn a spot in the postseason for the first time since 1986.
To make that happen with a loss to the Cats, the Raiders need Heritage-Catoosa to beat Ridgeland — which beat Southeast this year — tonight. Southeast and Heritage both would have 2-3 records, but the Raiders would clinch third because of their victory against Heritage earlier this season. The same would be true if LaFayette also finishes 2-3 in sub-region play.
“I don’t know how long it has been since Southeast has had this opportunity,” Dalton safety Nathan Bryant said, “but they will be extra fired up for this game.”
Bryant is part of a defense that has three shutouts in its past six games. The Cats will try to stop Southeast’s two-quarterback offense, with senior Rhett Harper in power-run formations and sophomore Will Swantic manning the shotgun spread. The latter threw two touchdowns and ran for another against the Bruins last week.
“I think things are starting to go in Southeast’s favor,” Raiders offensive lineman Matt Cloer said.
The Cats may not have postseason worries on their mind, but they are playing for a seven-game winning streak entering the region championship — they’ll face the winner of tonight’s Gilmer-Cedartown game next Friday — and looking to stretch a 31-1 series lead over a neighboring school.
Dalton coach Matt Land said he plans to use his starters against Southeast like any other game.
“Are we cautious with how we play certain people? Absolutely,” Land said. “As the game goes on, you realize the ebb and flow. ... When a game gets sloppy, that’s when you have to be careful.”
Junior running back Kelvis Rhodes has 726 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns on 91 carries. Eder Mora leads Dalton from his safety/linebacker hybrid spot in tackles (112), forced fumbles (3) and recovered fumbles (2). He also has three interceptions, punts and sees the occasional snap at fullback.
“Mora is an outstanding athlete,” Gray said. “They move him around so you never know where he’s going to be.”
Christian Heritage (6-2, 2-1)
at Trion (5-2, 2-1)
Christian Heritage coach Preston Poag and Trion coach Justin Brown can pinpoint the significance of tonight’s Sub-Region 6A-A matchup in one word.
“It’s big,” Poag said.
Said Brown, “It’s huge.”
At Sam R. McCain Memorial Stadium in Trion, the visiting Lions and their hosts will be battling for second place in the sub-region and the chance to play the No. 3 team from Sub-Region 6B-A next week, when 6A-A teams will host all of the region’s crossover games.
Darlington has the No. 1 seed from 6A-A wrapped up, having beaten the Lions and Bulldogs earlier this season.
“That’s why it’s a big deal for both of us,” said Poag, whose team has given up just 48 points in the past seven games after losing 35-28 to Model in the season opener. “You’ve got to position yourself for the playoffs.”
For the Georgia High School Association’s Class A teams, whether they make the state playoffs — which are split into separate 16-team brackets for private and public schools — depends on either winning a region title or finishing high enough in the GHSA’s power rankings, which factor in victories and strength of schedule. Winning region is out of the question now for both Christian Heritage and the Bulldogs.
Trion, 14-5 under Brown in two seasons, has won two in a row since losing 42-14 to Darlington.
“They played well against us last year,” Poag said. “They’re a power football team that runs the wing-T. Last year they were the only team that manhandled us and they ran it down our throats. We have to stop their quarterback (Cory Bethune).
“This year nobody has manhandled us. We gave Model two touchdowns and Darlington beat us by four points. We should be undefeated.”
One major concern for the Lions is Trion’s offensive line, which averages between 260 and 270 pounds, Brown said.
“We’re blessed with that size up there,” Brown said. “We’ve got four seniors and a junior in the line, and we try to take advantage of their size and wear people down.”
However, Brown said the Lions’ offense, which averages 368.8 total yards and a sub-region best 35.6 points, presents his Bulldogs with a tremendous challenge.
“They’re probably the best we’ve faced this season,” Brown said.
Coahulla Creek (2-6, 1-4)
at North Murray (2-6, 1-4)
Two teams with identical records — overall and in region play — have different things to play for.
The Mountaineers have a beating heart in the chase for the Region 5-3A’s fourth seed in the Class 3A state playoffs.
Needing a lot more outside help — including winless Gordon Central beating Adairsville this week — the Colts are trying to get a third win, which would be one better than their win total from last season, when they played a varsity schedule for the first time.
“There are a lot of things that show improvement,” Coahulla Creek coach Jared Hamlin said. “Wins and losses are part of it, but I think we’ve shown improvement just by some of the things we’ve done, especially defensively this year.”
The Colts need defensive progress to be evident against a high-scoring Mountaineers team that scored 63 points last week against Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe.
“I guess we finally got all 11 guys clicking together,” Mountaineers coach David Gann said. “We didn’t make the stupid penalties and didn’t have the turnovers.”
North Murray used an option-heavy game plan last week as sophomore running back Drake McCowan scored five touchdowns.
“It’s hard at any level against the option,” Hamlin said, “but it’s tough in high school because you have mind lapses. Our players have to be very focused with each’s defensive assignments.”
Offense hasn’t been a problem at North Murray, but the defense is allowing 36 points per game. They won last week despite allowing 43 points, which is only the third-most allowed this season by the Mountaineers, who gave up 55 points to Ringgold and 63 points to Cartersville.
“On defense, we were kind of the opposite,” Gann said. “We have seven or eight guys doing what they were supposed to do and three or four not doing their job or not making the tackle.”
The Mountaineers must win tonight and beat winless Gordon Central next week to close the regular season to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they also need other things to fall into place. They must finish in a three-way tie for fourth place in the region standings with LFO and Sonoraville, which requires both of those teams to lose tonight and the former to beat the latter in the final week of the season.
Region 5-3A secretary Ed Vosburgh of Cartersville High School said the league follows the GHSA’s Constitution and By-Laws’ procedures for tiebreakers. That would leave LFO, North Murray and Sonoraville playing mini-games to determine who gets the region’s remaining spot in the state playoffs.
Pepperell (2-6, 2-3)
at Murray County (1-7, 0-5)
Even though Pepperell has just one more win than Murray County, the Dragons have won the right games.
Pepperell’s two Region 7-2A wins have come against Coosa and Chattooga, and the three teams have identical records in the league, leaving them tied for the final spot in the state playoffs. Since the Dragons have the tiebreaker over those two teams, wins against Murray County and Armuchee (1-7, 1-4) in the final two games of the year will put Pepperell in the postseason.
For Murray County, the final two games of the season are going to be less about this year and more about 2014.
“There are two left, so we have told the boys let’s bust it and fly around and do what we need to do and not worry about the score and play as well as we can,” Murray County coach Chad Brewer said. “We want to set the tempo for what we need to do in the weight room in the offseason. We mentioned that some last week, and we are really harping on that this week.”
This past spring, Brewer took over a program that hadn’t won a game on the field since October 2010. The Indians broke that streak earlier this year with a 14-12 win over Gordon Central, and while expectations outside the program may have been low, Brewer has seen the one thing he was looking for in his first year — improvement.
“We have met some of our expectations,” Brewer said. “Our numbers have stayed up and we have been able to get a lot of things accomplished in the weight room and get stronger as the season has gone along. We have gotten a lot of kids some good playing time, and we have met expectations in a lot of areas this season.”
Against Pepperell, Brewer expects his team to have another uphill battle in the final home game of the season.
“They are very big up front on both sides of the ball,” Brewer said. “That is going to give us problems if we don’t stay low on the fronts. They can move the ball on just about everyone. They definitely have talent and size with two or three running backs, and they are all pretty good.”
LaFayette (1-7, 1-3) at
Northwest Whitfield (7-1, 3-1)
While the Bruins are locked into Sub-region 7B-4A’s No. 2 seed and will play at Pickens next week with a spot in the state playoffs on the line, coach Josh Robinson said his team must remain focused on their goals this week.
“We have to keep pressing on and do what we can do,” Robinson said. “We have to prepare for the playoffs from here on out, and we have a chance to attain a goal of ours to tie and maybe play a game to break the record for wins in a season here at Northwest, which is nine.
“We have a chance to reach that in the regular season, and to get to that we can’t afford to overlook an improving LaFayette team, especially with them coming off of their big win over Ridgeland.”
LaFayette — in its first year under the direction of coach Chad Fisher — snapped an 11-game losing streak last week against the Panthers, who played for the Class 4A state title last season. Northwest has won nine games in a season three times, finishing 9-2 under Ron Wheeler in 2000 and 9-3 in 2004 and 2007 under Mike Falleur. The Bruins have never finished a season with double-digit victories.
While Northwest has certain team goals to look forward to, there are also some individual goals within reach. Running back Jacob Webb needs 167 yards to reach the 1,000-yard plateau, while quarterback Caleb Shiflett needs just 68 yards passing to eclipse the 1,500-yard mark.
But defense will be key for both Northwest and LaFayette with the teams employing spread offenses. While LaFayette has been more of a running team out of the package, the Ramblers proved they can throw the ball effectively as senior quarterback Lance Estus completed 23 of 39 passes for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win over Ridgeland.
“They have improved so much in a short time under coach Fisher,” Robinson said. “We saw them on film when they played River Ridge (in the third game of the season) and you could see they were struggling with a new coach and a new system. They played very solid and were very efficient on offense against Ridgeland. That is a scary thing for us that they are putting it all together the right time to play us.”
Compiled by sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondent Dave Gordon.