By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here’s a look at some of the best games on the board in Week 6, with extended previews of two:
No. 4 Wilcox County (2-1) at Charlton County (2-2). This game pits two teams that have played the most brutal early-season schedules of any teams in the state, regardless of classification.
Wilcox faced an always talented Wilkinson County team to open the season, followed by a game against a solid Class AAAA team in Monroe, and then a physical contest against Dooly County. Charlton’s gauntlet was even more difficult as the Indians have faced AAA Brantley County, AAAAA Ware County and Bradwell Institute, and Fitzgerald, ranked No. 5 in AA.
Both Wilcox head coach Mark Ledford and Charlton head coach Rich McWhorter confess that they weren’t trying to see how big and bad their teams were early, when they completed their schedules. They are both victims of circumstance.
“Being in a region with just seven teams, that means you have six region games, which gives you four games to fill,” McWhorter said. “So you have to get games against other schools that need games because they are in regions with just six or seven teams as well. For us, to cut down on travel, you’re looking at the teams in Region 1AA, with Fitzgerald, Brooks County, Cook and those guys, or the teams in Region 1AAAAAA, which is Camden, Valdosta, Lowndes and the rest of them.
“So when people get upset and ask why we played Fitzgerald, who many people think might win a state championship,” McWhorter said, “I say, OK, would you rather we schedule Camden. It was just a very difficult situation for us and for Wilcox this year.”
And now they have to face in each other in their Region 2 opener.
“Wilcox is a tough, touch draw for us,” McWhorter said. “But when you look at our region, everybody is either .500 or better after the first three games. That’s unheard of but it speaks to how good the region is.”
Ledford isn’t thrilled about facing one of the state’s top programs either. “Our open week [last week] came at a great time for us, because it gave us a chance to heal up after a really physical game against Dooly,” Ledford said of his team’s 28-14 win on Sept. 14.
He said the week off also gave he and his staff more time to work on diversifying the Patriots’ offense, which he feels has become too reliant on the senior duo of quarterback Mikail Grace and receiver Jonathan Howard. The Patriots also worked on improving their kick coverage, having surrendered four returns (one punt and three kickoffs) for scores this season.
“We’ve got to be able to do more than just throw it to Jonathan,” Ledford said . “We’re trying to find a way to get the ball to some others.”
Meanwhile in Folkston, McWhorter said this is one of the least athletic teams he’s had since he arrived as an assistant in 1988, before taking over as head coach in 1990.
“That’s not a knock on our kids because they’re working really hard. But that’s just the fact,” McWhorter said. “We lack speed and play-making ability, and this is also a very inexperienced team. We only had three starters on both sides of the ball come back.”
But McWhorter knows no one will cry for his program, which has won four state titles and 21 region championships, 15 under McWhorter. In fact, folks around town are wondering out loud what’s wrong with the Indians this season.
“We’re 2-2 and people here think the sky is falling,” McWhorter said. “But look at the teams that beat us. I’d say Fitzgerald and Ware are pretty good. But I don’t mind the pressure. It’s great that our kids have a tradition to live up to. Pressure is good. Pressure is what creates diamonds.”
McWhorter said he is pleased with his teams’ effort, particularly on defense where the Indians are led by senior linebackers Brian Young (5-10, 205) and Brent Wildes (5-9, 180).
“We even played great defense at times against Fitzgerald,” McWhorter said of last week’s 37-0 loss to the Purple Hurricanes. “We tackled them for losses several times, but then they would come back and make a play. But I think we’re getting better, and if we can keep that up, I’ll be fine with it. Win or lose against Wilcox, if I can say that we played well and got better, I think we’ll be OK.”
No. 1 Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy (3-1) at Holy Innocents (2-2). ELCA head coach Jonathan Gess said he is just as concerned about the coaching staff at Holy Innocents, led by head coach Ryan Livezey, as he is the players on the field.
“Those kids play super hard all the time and they’re well prepared all the time,” Gess said. “This is the fifth year we’ve been in a region with them, and so at that point, you really get to know each other’s tendencies and weaknesses.
“Coach Livezey is going to have his kids in the right spots to make plays on both sides of the ball,” Gess said. “And I’m not thrilled about playing them after they’ve lost two games in a row.”
After starting 2-0 with wins over AAAAA Lakeside-DeKalb (20-14) and AA Wesleyan (10-9), Holy Innocents has dropped its last two games – 24-14 to AAAAA Riverwood and 45-14 to George Walton Academy on Sept. 14. “They have great tradition there, and great pride,” Gess said. “They expect to win and they’ll come out fighting with their backs against the wall.”
Both teams come into their Region 5 opener after a week off. Gess said his team was able to get a little healthier while working on tackling and fine-tuning the offense. The Chargers will welcome back two all-state senior leaders, running back/linebacker Keyonte Green (5-9/215) and safety/receiver DJ Curl (5-10, 180). A third all-state player, two-way lineman Isaac Rochelle, will be out two more weeks with a broken bone in his hand.
While Rochelle, who has committed to Notre Dame, and Green, who has committed to Purdue, get the lion’s share of the attention, Gess said Curl’s return to the lineup is key. He had been nursing a severe ankle sprain that he suffered in the season opening loss to Washington County (5-0), ranked No. 3 in AAA.
“He’s an awesome player and a difference maker in our secondary,” Gess said. “It was a huge loss when he went out. Washington County hit us with two long passes when he was out.”
The game will be held on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Holy Innocents shares Riverwood’s stadium, and the Raiders will be hosting Northview on Friday.
No. 9 Commerce (4-0) at No. 8 George Walton Academy (3-1). This looks to be one of the best games of the weekend, regardless of classification. Commerce is coming off a dramatic, comeback win over AA Rabun County last week. Trailing 17-6 in the fourth quarter, the Tigers pulled to within 17-12 when fullback Jamal Browner scored on a 9-yard run with a little over two minutes left in regulation. Then quarterback Drew Whitfield recovered and onsides kick and scored the winning touchdown on a four-yard keeper on fourth-and-two with just 19 seconds left.
GWA has won two in a row since falling in overtime, 28-21 to No. 3 Aquinas back on Sept. 7. Leading the charge has been junior running back Stanley “Boom” Williams (5-10, 175), who left last week’s 37-0 win over Warren County in the second quarter after hurting his ankle. But senior quarterback Hunter Rice might be the team’s MVP. In the blowout over the Screaming Devils, Rice threw three touchdown passes and grabbed an interception on defense.
Other games of note:
Savannah Christian (1-2) at No. 10 Johnson County (3-0). Wrightsville will be on fire as the defending champion Raiders come to town for a crossover game in subdivided Region 3. The Trojans are led by Bull Darrisaw, who has rushed for 635 yards this season. Savannah Christian is in a rebuilding year, but picked up its first win of the season last week with a 47-7 thumping of Montgomery County (0-4). This is the first ever meeting between the two schools.
No. 6 Lincoln County (2-1) at First Presbyterian Day (2-1). This is the region opener for both teams, which will fight it out with No. 3 Aquinas (3-0) for the title.
Dooly County (2-1) at Brookstone (2-1). Both teams are coming off of tough losses as they move into their Region 4 schedules. Brookstone lost 17-14 at Wesleyan last week, on a 49-yard field goal as time expired. The Cougars are led by a quartet of seniors quarterback/defensive back Duncan Fletcher, receiver/defensive back Tim Kennedy, receiver/defensive back Drew Lingo and running back/defensive back Madison McCluskey. Dooly had an off week after falling to No. 4 Wilcox, 28-14, on Sept. 14. The winner will take a big step toward winning the region championship, which guarantees a playoff spot regardless of the number of points a team has accumulated.
Marion County (2-1) at Greenville (2-1). Another battle of 2-1 teams in Region 4. Brookstone, Dooly, Greenville and Marion appear to be the favorites in the league.
Our Lady of Mercy (3-1) at Pace Academy (1-3). Pace is trying to stop a three-game slide while the Bobcats look to rebound from a tough 10-7 loss at Athens Academy last week. It is the Region 5 opener for both teams.