Two weeks ago, No. 1 Sandy Creek trailed upstart Alexander with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. It was the first time they had trailed in the fourth quarter since last season’s quarterfinal playoff game against Burke County.
The Patriots didn’t panic then and didn’t panic against Alexander, rallying for two late touchdowns to remain unbeaten.
Now, the question is – Will the top-ranked Patriots panic this week, if they fall behind at No. 2 Carrollton in a huge game to decide the Region 5-AAAA championship?
“They’re a good team, and they’re going to make some plays,” Sandy Creek coach Chip Walker said about Carrollton. “Our kids have to understand that. You don’t play in these type games, and they go exactly like you drew it up.”
Sandy Creek won last season’s meeting convincingly, 30-7. But there’s a feeling that the Patriots haven’t lived up to expectations this season. Some believe Sandy Creek isn’t even the favorite heading into Friday’s game, let alone in the state playoffs.
“I don’t know if we’re still the favorite,” said Walker, “but we’re the defending champs, though.”
Walker talked about his team’s performance to this point and about a wide-open AAAA state championship race in a Tuesday phone interview.
Q: Has your team lived up to your expectations to this point?
Walker: We haven’t played quite as good at times as we’d like to, but all our goals are still very much in front of us, region championship and state championship. We haven’t played with our original starting lineup since the first game. That’s been the biggest thing. So I don’t if expectations can be met in terms of that. We’ve been banged up a lot.
Q: Are you healthy heading into Friday’s game?
Walker: I think we’re probably as healthy as we’ve been.
Q: Are there any key injuries heading into Friday’s game?
Walker: That’s going to have to be one of those deals, where we’ll just have to wait and see.
Q: When you look at Carrollton on film, what stands out?
Walker: I just think they have really good players, and they are well-coached. That’s the big thing. They’ve got a really good football team. I don’t think there can be one thing that can stick out to you. I think it’s a combination of all the things.
Q: Special teams were a factor in last year’s game against Carrollton, with the Trojans committing a couple mistakes in the kicking game. How comfortable are you with your special teams heading into Friday’s game?
Walker: They have a huge advantage in special teams. They have a kicker (Tyler Newsome) that’s committed to Notre Dame. Obviously, that’s something plays in their favor. We have not done as good in kickoff coverage as we would have liked. We don’t have as talented as kicker or punter as we had last year. Have (special teams) been up to par compared to what they were last year? No. But have they been up to what we expected? Probably.
Q: How do you assess Class AAA at this point?
Walker: There’s a bunch of really good AAAA football teams in the state this year. You can go to all corners of the state, and you’re going to find a team that has the ability to make a run in the playoffs. You can go to Marist, Monroe, Cedartown, Wayne County, Burke County, Statesboro, Mary Persons … our region has a couple good teams in it, too. Veterans is playing really good right now … Stockbridge, Griffin … Eagle’s Landing is playing really good right now. You can anywhere in the state and find a lot of teams that, when it comes playoff time, you’re going to have your hands full.
Note: The winner of the Carrollton-Sandy Creek game will earn the Region 5 top seed and be placed in the same playoff bracket as the No. 1 seed out of Region 4 and could draw the Region 8 2-seed in the second round. Griffin is the favorite in Region 4. If No. 4 Monroe Area loses at Chestatee on Friday, the Purple Hurricanes, who reached the semifinals last season, could face the Region 5 winner in the second round.
The No. 2 seed out of Region 5 is slated to face the No. 1 seed out of Region 8, the likely Chestatee-Monroe Area winner.