Let’s be real.
The Georgia High School Association’s football state playoffs may be six weeks away, but the start of league play for Region 7-4A’s two sub-regions will bring a do-or-die atmosphere to those games tonight.
That’s certainly true for those who would aspire to be region champions. The importance of starting 1-0 rather than 0-1 is paramount with only five weeks to determine sub-region seeding. In the final week of the regular season, the two sub-region winners will face off for the championship — both are guaranteed a host’s spot in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs — while the No. 2 seed from each sub-region will cross over to play the No. 3 seed from the other, with a state berth going to the winners.
In Sub-region 7B-4A matchups involving local teams tonight, Dalton hosts Ridgeland, Northwest Whitfield is at Heritage-Catoosa and Southeast Whitfield heads to LaFayette. In other games involving teams from Murray and Whitfield counties, Christian Heritage heads to Gordon Lee, Coahulla Creek hosts Gordon Central and North Murray travels to Adairsville. All kickoffs are at 7:30 p.m.
The Ridgeland Panthers (1-3) won last season’s sub-region and region titles and they did it while going undefeated in league play. Just one loss could be enough to prevent a team from attaining its goals.
“You can’t make a mistake if you think you’ll play for a region championship,” Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said.
Dalton started the season with two losses in which the Catamounts scored just 29 points total against Ringgold and Cass, but they have scored at least 30 while winning their past two games. The notable difference in the past two weeks’ victories against Gilmer and Cass, Sub-region 7A-4A teams, was the return of junior tailback Kelvis Rhodes. He rushed for 16 touchdowns and more than 1,500 yards in 2012 but missed the first two games of this season with a shoulder injury.
In just eight quarters this season, Rhodes has 295 yards on 37 carries, including seven touchdowns. He also has a 79-yard touchdown catch.
“Those first two games weren’t as important as the ones against region and sub-region teams,” Dalton fullback Jacob Bartoo said.
From here on, each game should be treated like a postseason game, Dalton coach Matt Land said.
“It’s a corny coach saying that the next game is the most important game, but in a way it’s true,” Land said. “This is our first sub-region game, and we only have five of those. Technically, at the end of the day, one misstep to the wrong team could cost you a spot in the playoffs because of tiebreakers.
“We’ll tell our kids, for all practical purposes, we’re in the playoffs. We’re in it right now. That’s the way we look at it, because if we lose this one then some of the games down the road might not matter.”
The Panthers’ success in 2013 went beyond sub-region and region accolades as they reached the Class 4A state title game during the best season in program history. But this season hasn’t gone nearly as well so far.
The Panthers opened with a 37-0 loss to Calhoun — the only common opponent thus far for Ridgeland and Dalton, which lost 17-2 to the Yellow Jackets — and have dropped each of the past two games, falling 36-14 to Cedartown and 41-28 to Pickens. Ridgeland’s only win was 42-14 over River Ridge.
“I’d rather be 4-0,” Mariakis said with a laugh. “Our kids are battling hard. We’ll probably have four freshmen starting. Dalton isn’t going to care, though. Nobody will care. I don’t think record has any indication of the quality of this ballgame.”
Mariakis is right — Dalton doesn’t care. In fact, Land called Ridgeland “one of the best teams” the Cats will play all season.
“I think sometimes when you’re on a winning streak, you might think you’re better than you are,” he said. “When you’re on a losing streak, you may think you’re worse than you are. We don’t play into that. We treat each week autonomous of past weeks. As far as we’re concerned, we’re playing the region champions and the state runners-up.”
Christian Heritage (4-1, 1-0) at Gordon Lee (3-1, 0-0)
A year ago, Gordon Lee’s Zack Cobb scored touchdowns on offense and defense while leading the Trojans to a 20-7 victory — all the scoring occurred in the first half — at Christian Heritage.
The looming question for tonight’s Sub-region 6A-A matchup in Chickamauga is: Will Cobb even play?
“He didn’t play at all last week,” Lions coach Preston Poag said. “We understand he broke his leg in the Coahulla Creek game (on Sept. 6) and hadn’t played since.”
Other media reports have Cobb out with a knee injury, but Gordon Lee coach Charlie Wiggins didn’t return phone calls seeking a status report on his star running back and cornerback.
In the Trojans’ first two games against Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and Coahulla Creek, both with Cobb playing, they scored 58 points. Without Cobb, the Trojans have scored just six points in two games and last week were shut out by Whitefield Academy, which held them to 117 yards of offense. Gordon Lee crossed midfield twice.
Wiggins did talk about last year’s game when contacted earlier in the week.
“It was a barnburner, a really close game that went back and forth,” he said. “The second half became a defensive slugfest.”
The Lions average 376 yards of total offense — 233 through the air — and 37.8 points per game. Defensive coordinator Bill Mitchell’s unit yields an average of 198 yards per game and 13 points. The Lions have two shutouts and 35 of the 65 points scored against them came in a season-opening loss to Model.
The Lions have several players who are enjoying good seasons from an individual standpoint as well, and quarterback Trevor Brown and wide receiver Nich Bartley — both are seniors — and junior linebacker Evan Townsend particularly stand out in that group. Brown has completed 73 of 125 passes for 1,162 yards, with 15 touchdowns against six interceptions. He has a reliable target in Bartley, who has compiled an eye-popping 30 catches for 644 yards including nine touchdowns. No other receiver in Murray or Whitfield counties has more than 250 yards.
Townsend is the area’s leader with 73 total tackles.
“We’re a confident team right now,” Poag said. “We have a different mentality this year and I like what I see. There is good focus. We’re getting great senior leadership. Good things are happening.”
Gordon Central (0-5, 0-2) at Coahulla Creek (1-4, 0-2)
The Colts dive into the heart of their Region 5-3A schedule this week, and they’re looking to rebound from a 41-3 loss last week at region leader Cartersville — the Purple Hurricanes are ranked second in the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class 4A poll — against the struggling Warriors.
Despite last week’s loss at Cartersville, there were some positives for Coahulla Creek that didn’t show up in the box score. Colts coach Jared Hamlin saw them early in the first quarter. The offense was able to drive the length of the field and put three points on the board, something that doesn’t always happen to the Purple Hurricanes, especially at home.
“We came out last week with high intensity and a good tempo,” Hamlin said. “We did a lot of good things against a great football team. I know the score is what it is, it’s a loss and everything else. But we did some things that no one else has done to them this year. We scored on the first drive, which no one has scored on the first drive against them. We made them punt four or five times. We don’t like the loss, but we got better.”
Another positive for the Colts has been offensive balance and strong contributions from the senior class. Senior quarterback Blaine Williams has 652 yards on 45 of 92 passing for three touchdowns, five interceptions and has also rushed for a pair of scores. Senior running back Cameron Burton leads the ground game with 346 yards on 66 carries, a 5.2-yard average, while senior receivers Levi Wilson and Michael Ward have combined for 25 catches and 379 yards. Wilson has two touchdown catches and Ward has one.
The Warriors have a sophomore at quarterback, Shy Williams, while linebacker Nate Mays and tackle Boo Dooley will spearhead the defense.
Gordon Central hasn’t won since beating North Murray in the regular-season finale in 2012, a stretch of nearly 11 months. The Warriors lost in the opening round of the Class 3A state playoffs the following week to start their current skid. The Colts have their own losing streak, which is at four games. They haven’t scored more than 16 points or held an opponent to fewer than 25 since beating Murray County 35-9 to open the season.
Hamlin’s solution for ending the drought is simple.
“Score more points than the other team,” he said.
North Murray (1-4, 0-2) at Adairsville (3-2, 1-1)
With no Region 5-3A wins so far this season and what look to be tough games over the next two weeks —tonight and next week against visiting Ringgold (4-1, 2-0) — North Murray is in a precarious position when it comes to holding on to any hope of making the state playoffs.
Mountaineers coach David Gann has done the math. He believes his team can work the solution.
“Out of the last six games, we have to win four of them,” he said. “For us to get in the playoffs, we need four or five wins. Our goals are still attainable, and our spirits are still high, so it is just a matter of getting things done.”
In last week’s 38-35 loss to Sonoraville in Chatsworth, North Murray’s young offense came of age as it compiled more than 400 yards, but Gann said his defense still needs to make progress.
“Defensively, we missed a lot of tackles,” he said. “We are over the young team stuff. That isn’t an excuse anymore. Right now, the thing is we have to do the basics — block and tackle.”
The Tigers will greet the Mountaineers with an offense keyed by quarterback Marcus Jones, a 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound junior. But coach Eric Bishop said the game will be won or lost on the play of his defense.
North Murray’s leading rusher is junior quarterback Hinton McConkey, who has 356 yards on 56 carries, including a pair of touchdowns for the option-favoring Mountaineers. He has also thrown for 695 yards while completing 49 of 95 passes, including eight touchdowns against just one interception. Running back Drake McCowan has added 340 yards on 73 carries, while Payton Swilling has 18 catches for 216 yards and five touchdowns.
“Our biggest problem is trying to adjust to all of the things that North Murray brings at you on offense and defense,” Bishop said. “Monday’s practice was a little chaotic trying to mimic what they do. We broke it down in parts and pieces, but it is a lot for the kids to try and digest.
“You don’t have to watch very much film on them to realize they are right on the edge of putting it all together. The kids know that they are capable of beating us. We realize the potential that coach Gann’s team has.”
Northwest Whitfield (4-0) at Heritage-Catoosa (0-4)
Heritage’s closest game this season was a 27-21 loss at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe on Sept. 6. In the other three games, the Generals have allowed 42 or more points and scored a combined 21, although they were shut out last week by Pickens.
The Generals’ frustration stretches further back than that, though, after a winless 2012 in which they were shut out three times.
But Northwest coach Josh Robinson — who has the program off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2007 — doesn’t want his team to hear any talk about how the Bruins should roll in their sub-region opener.
“In this sub-region, you aren’t going to be able to walk over any of the teams,” he said. “A lot of people will say we should beat this team, but we aren’t saying that. People lose games they aren’t supposed to lose all the time. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of that.”
Robinson said the challenge for his coaching staff is to keep their players focused on the overall picture and not taking a single win for granted.
“You talk about the long-term goals and that should focus them,” Robinson said. “‘Was our goal to win four games, or did you want to win a region title?’ An undefeated season and a region title are still goals that are in reach
“Northwest has never been 10-0 and the school has only one region title. Those are goals that can keep them focused. You can’t get to 10-0 unless you are 5-0. Our job is to keep them focused on the big picture.”
Defensive lineman Cameron Atkins is expected return for the Bruins after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the opening game of the year. Rather than have surgery, Atkins will play the rest of the year with a leg brace, but he should make his return tonight.
He joins a group that has been making plenty of big plays, with one of the more notable names senior defensive back Tevin McDaniel. He has 18 tackles but has been more noticeable for his turnover creation — he has four interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
“Overall, we are pretty healthy for it to be almost to the midpoint of the season,” Robinson said. “The injuries that we have sustained have been very serious for the team and the individual kids, but we have had some kids step up when they have had to fill someone’s shoes.”
Southeast (2-2) at LaFayette (0-4)
In their first four games, the Raiders faced a variety of offenses. North Murray’s option. Gilmer’s wing-T. Cedartown’s power run.
Next on the menu is the Ramblers’ spread.
“They’re going to come out throwing the ball all over the place,” Southeast coach Sean Gray said. “... I think they will try to attack us vertically.”
That might not be a bad thing for the Raiders. They use a combination of I-formation and spread sets on offense, so the defense has practiced against spread looks since the spring. Southeast’s defense held opponents below 20 points in each of the first three games this season, but Cedartown’s Nick Chubb rushed for 360 yards on 28 carries while leading his Bulldogs to a 42-28 win last week at Southeast.
The Raiders led 21-20 at halftime.
“We’ve played good defense all year, except for last Friday night when we played a superstar,” Gray said. “I think our defense will be excited to face a spread team. We’ve seen the power I, the wishbone and the option. It gives us a chance to incorporate some coverages and stuff that we haven’t been able to use. We didn’t even use cards (at practice). We just called the plays by what we call them.”
Of course, LaFayette’s defense has a similar advantage.
“With the spread stuff, we’re able to go against our offense in practice, which gives us a helping hand,” said Ramblers coach Chad Fisher, who is in his first season at LaFayette after leading Gordon Central the past six seasons.
LaFayette doesn’t bring the same scoring threat Cedartown had. The Ramblers were shut out two weeks ago against River Ridge and only scored seven points last week versus Gilmer. Quarterback Lance Estus is averaging exactly 100 yards passing per game and has thrown just one touchdown and four interceptions.
“We have to do a better job executing what we’re doing,” Fisher said. “It’s just a growing process. We’re growing. ... We’re inexperienced in some spots.”
— Compiled by sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming and Dave Gordon.