November 21, 2012

Dalton's next opponent: Sandy Creek hasn’t lost a fight yet

Sandy Creek football coach Chip Walker believes this year’s team is up there talent-wise with either of his Fighting Patriots squads that won state championships.

But talent means nothing if the ending is similar to last year.

With an undefeated record and No. 1 ranking in both The Associated Press and Georgia High School Football Daily/Atlanta Journal-Constitution Class 4A polls, Sandy Creek (11-0) looks to continue its path back to a state championship Friday at home against Dalton (8-3). The second-round matchup kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at The Battlefield in Tyrone, and the Patriots know from last year that a loss means they won’t reclaim a spot among Georgia’s elite.

In 2009 and 2010, Sandy Creek claimed its only two state titles. The 2009 season started with a 28-27 double-overtime loss to East Coweta and it ended with a 29-15 Class 4A championship win against Clarke Central in the Georgia Dome. In 2010, Sandy Creek went undefeated and capped off the Class 3A title run with a 14-7 win against Carrollton in the same venue.

That means since the 2009 loss to East Coweta, Sandy Creek has an impressive 52-1 record.

“We’ve been fortunate the last couple of years,” said Walker, who is in his eighth season as Sandy Creek’s head coach and 14th season on the program’s staff, which was formerly led by his father Rodney. “We’ve had some pretty good players come through here and we’ve had a pretty good stretch.”

Those athletes include former Georgia Bulldog and current Washington Redskins defensive tackle Kedric Golston, former Georgia Tech and current Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Houston Texans offensive tackle Andrew Gardner, a 2009 Georgia Tech graduate.

This season, those among the Patriots who seem headed for notable college football careers include offensive lineman Allen Knott, who has committed to South Carolina, cornerback Shaquil Wiggens, who has committed to Georgia, and junior wideout Demarre Kitt, who decommitted from Georgia and now is considering USC and Clemson.

Sophomore running backs Delvin Weems and Eric Swinney teamed up for nearly 500 yards in a 55-0 rout of Eastside in last week’s opening round, and quarterback Cole Garvin has thrown 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions.

Add up everything and this team could be as good as the 2009 squad.

At least, that’s what Walker hopes for.

“You can’t compare it to state championship teams unless you win a state championship,” he said. “Once they get to that point, then we can compare it.

“Talent-wise, I’d say the 2009 team was the more talented of the two state championship teams. ... We’re definitely on par this season with that team.”

The Region 5 champions know the state championship pedigree better than anyone. They also know what one loss could mean.

In the quarterfinals of last year’s Class 3A state playoffs, Sandy Creek lost 35-21 at Gainesville, the same team that defeated Dalton 48-27 in the first round.

That defeat may have catapulted the program into its most dominant season yet. The closest final scores was three weeks ago in a 30-7 win against Carrollton.

“At times during several games this year, it has been close,” Walker said. “Carrollton was fairly close for a little while. ... We’ve been in some situations where we’ve been in some tight games, just not one that has been tight in the fourth quarter.”

In 2004, 2007 and 2008, the Patriots fought until the second round. In 2006 and 2005, they exited in the first round, but that still sums up nine consecutive years making the state playoffs.

But the goal is not just the postseason. It is winning the final game in the Georgia Dome, and Gainesville’s triumph would keep Sandy Creek’s current senior class from a clean sweep.

Does last year’s playoff loss make the Patriots more dangerous? Dalton coach Matt Land thinks so.

“I think any coach that looks and sees the kind of talent in the Sandy Creek program, and then you’re stopped by a team and turn around the next year, you go around and somewhat vindicate yourself to try and disprove any critics or prove to your players, ‘Hey, we should’ve won the state championship,’” Land said.

The Cats, who have used a steady ground game on offense and solid defense in the season’s second half to build a six-game winning streak, are looking for their first second-round victory since 2005, when they reached the Class 4A quarterfinals before their postseason run came to an end.

Sandy Creek has showcased a balanced attack through its first 11 games this season. When Walker says “balanced,” he really means the offense can move the ball any way it wants. The running game is averaging 231.7 yards per game with the passing attack at 194.6 per contest.

“For the majority of the season, we’ve been balanced almost 50-50,” Walker said. “We want to be able to take advantage of whatever a defense is giving us,” Walker said. “We feel like, for the most part, we were able to do that.”

Combining a defense that has allowed just two offensive touchdowns in the past five games, and there’s little question why Sandy Creek holds a No. 1 ranking.

“Our program is built off defense,” Walker said. “If the offense is clicking or if it takes a while to get going, if we play good defense then we’ll be in every game.”

Then again, top-ranked teams have fallen victim to upsets before. While Walker does not want his team having its chests puffed out due to the recognition, he also hopes the players realize every team wants to beat the best.

“We don’t put much stock in where we’re ranked,” he said. “A lot of that is based off things that have happened in the past. However, we also understand and try to make our guys understand that being ranked No. 1 makes it where there’s more of a bull’s-eye on your chest. You’ll get everyone’s best shot.”

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