The Daily Citizen
When league standings aren’t at stake — as is the case for high school football teams in Murray and Whitfield counties during the early portion of the season this year — victories are no less desired, but losses are a lot less costly.
Having your pride hurt at the cost of learning a lesson or revealing an imperfection can be a bargain of a tradeoff for coaches and their teams as they prepare for sub-region or region competition.
That’s definitely been the case among local teams. Just one of them is undefeated a month into the season — Northwest Whitfield is 2-0 — and all of them have plenty to work on with league play starting as soon as this week in some cases.
In last Friday’s action, Christian Heritage beat Coahulla Creek 27-9, Murray County won 14-12 at Gordon Central, North Murray rolled past Johnson-Gainesville 34-7, Northwest Whitfield topped Pickens 25-13 and Southeast Whitfield lost 18-6 at Gilmer.
In the case of Christian Heritage, the Lions put up pretty statistics on offense, but their most important number from the game might be a zero — as in the number of turnovers they committed.
Through their first two games, the Lions (2-1) gave the ball away six times. In the third, they were turnover-free and took the ball away from the Colts three times with two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
“Not turning the ball over, that’s one of the keys to the game,” Christian Heritage head coach Preston Poag said.
Senior quarterback Trevor Brown entered the game with 504 yards passing and seven touchdowns so far this season. He added to those numbers with 259 yards passing and two more scoring passes.
Brown’s favorite target? Fellow senior Nich Bartley. His nine receptions for 175 yards paced the team. He was also the recipient of Brown’s two touchdown tosses. The rushing game was effective as well, with freshman running back Ahmaad Tanner adding two touchdowns on the ground.
Despite falling to 1-2, Coahulla Creek had some bright spots. Running back Cameron Burton had 12 carries for 59 yards, while quarterback Blaine Williams had a 9-yard touchdown run. Williams, who is battling an arm injury, had 129 yards passing and an interception. Kicker Pedro Garcia nailed a 40-yard field goal.
The referees were active as they assessed 22 penalties resulting in more than 200 yards between the two teams. One ugly exchange came in the second half when, after a punt, Christian Heritage drew a facemask penalty and three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
It was yet another reminder that the early portion of the season is a valuable time for education.
“I wasn’t happy with the penalties,” Poag said. “It was a lesson learned tonight.”
• For Murray County (1-2), Friday’s win at Gordon Central had a lot to do with the ball finding its way inside the uprights.
And Indians coach Chad Brewer can thank Jose Ruiz for that.
Ruiz, a senior, made both extra points. It was the difference in the game as the Warriors tried for a two-point conversion after their first touchdown and failed. Gordon Central had to go for two to tie at the end of the game and failed again.
Ruiz has played soccer for three years at Murray County and was an honorable mention for The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Soccer team this past season, when he led the Indians with an impressive 28 goals.
But this fall is his first experience trying to kick a ball over the crossbar, not under it.
“This is his first year kicking field goals, and to have him come out there and make those two, it was the difference in the game,” Brewer said.
That said, the Indians had good performances on offense, defense and special teams as they got the total-squad, four-quarter performance they needed to bust a 20-game losing skid that was actually even longer when forfeits are thrown out.
Now the Indians can go from talking about skids to streaks — if they beat Armuchee this week to open Region 7-2A competition, it will be the first time since 2005 they’ve won back-to-back games.
• For North Murray (1-2), penalties clogged the tempo through most of the first three quarters Friday night.
Twenty total infractions were called, and at times there was more laundry on the field than on a teenager’s bedroom floor.
Mountaineers coach David Gann knows the mistakes need to be corrected, but the level of errors, he said, are getting better.
“The thing that is good about it is, in the first couple weeks we had the dumb penalties. Jumping offsides and those kinds of things, “Gann said. “A lot of ours tonight were hustle penalties. Holding ... you know, and no penalties are good. But that just shows our kids are giving effort.”
Ultimately, the biggest bright spot was the final score and the fact that North Murray put 34 points on the board, which overshadowed the early sputtering for the Mountaineers’ offense. Junior quarterback Hinton McConkey took control, and when he wasn’t firing the ball downfield, he was using his mobility and quickness to gain yardage to move the chains.
McConkey accounted for 327 of the team’s 426 total yards, including 240 in the air and 87 on the ground. Several different times when there wasn’t an open option with the pass, he eluded tacklers to keep plays alive and allow the Mountaineers to retain possession.
Gann want to see the progress continue.
“We have gotten better every week, and our mistakes have gone from way up here to way down there,” Gann said. “We have to continue to get to where we can play mistake-free and play four good quarters.”
• Northwest’s win against Pickens showed the Bruins’ offensive potential as they scored on their first two possessions to take a 10-0 lead. But the Dragons made defensive adjustments to contain Northwest (2-0) for the next two quarters.
They did it with a blitz package that the Bruins never completely solved.
“After those first two drives, you could see that our offense was in a real good rhythm,” Northwest coach Josh Robinson said. “A big thing with our offense is rhythm, and Pickens did a good job of taking us out of that in the second quarter.”
In a lot of ways, it was a fundamental defensive shift for the Dragons, who generally play a more containing rather than an attacking style defense, Robinson said. But Northwest’s short passing game — triggered by quarterback Caleb Shiflett — and the quick-hitting runs of Jacob Webb were taking their toll, so Pickens got aggressive with blitzes straight to Shiflett’s right side.
Northwest was able to counter the aggression late in the third quarter with Shiflett’s legs.
“(Northwest) did a good job of letting their quarterback run the inside read underneath our blitzes to sort of neutralize what we were doing,” Pickens coach Chris Parker said.
Still, Pickens was able to dominate the offensive side of the box score as quarterback Tanner Brumby and running back Shannon Brooks combined for 330 yards of total offense. By contrast, the Bruins had fewer than 250 yards.
But six takeaways — four fumble recoveries and two interceptions — by the Bruins negated much of Pickens’ offensive production.
• Southeast’s offense looked stagnant in the I formation and much better in the shotgun spread this past week.
The Raiders used the former base offense for the first quarter, with Rhett Harper at quarterback, but switched to the latter in the second quarter and put Will Swantic behind center and Harper at receiver.
The production difference was noticeable.
In three possessions using the I formation, Southeast only gained two first downs and 28 yards. In the spread, the Raiders tallied 123 yards. On its first possession in the spread, Southeast drove from its own 26 to inside the red zone, but Swantic’s third-down pass was intercepted in the end zone.
“Everyone has gotten used to our power game,” Harper said of why the spread offense worked. “They aren’t used to us switching it up.”
As for mistakes, the Raiders have a timely off week to make any repairs before returning to competition against Cedartown on Sept. 27.
— Compiled by Co-City Editor Jamie Jones, sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondent Dave Gordon.