By David Purdum / For the AJC
Marist will be returning to the playoffs for the 31st consecutive season. A win over Carver on Friday would give the War Eagles the No. 1 seed out of Region 6-AAAA and their 23rd region championship.
But how good is this Marist team? Right now, Marist is the team AAAA coaches mention just after naming their top state championship contenders. Marist is the team “you can never count out,” they say. But, from a reporter who hasn’t seen Marist this season, just how good are the War Eagles?
For the first time in coach Alan Chadwick’s 29-year career, Marist lost back-to-back games, falling to Thomas County Central and Lovett in Weeks 2 and 3. The War Eagles dropped from No. 4 all the way out of the AJC rankings. They rolled through region play with little difficulty, putting together six straight dominating wins against overmatched competition. Marist outscored region opponents 233-25 in the kind of games in which starters had to be taken out in the second half and scoreboards had to be managed as best as possible.
The blowouts caused a dilemma for Chadwick and his staff. His team needed to improve, but not at the expense of embarrassing an opponent.
“That’s been a challenge,” said Chadwick. “We feel like we’ve prepared ourselves well through our intensity in practice. We’ve scrimmaged ones on ones (starters vs. starters) pretty regularly throughout the season. But it’s still a concern. We haven’t faced a real good, quality competition, and we’re concerned about what may happen when we do start to face some adversity.”
An athletic Carver team will be the best test the War Eagles have faced since September. But Marist has owned this series, winning three straight, including last season’s 42-14 rout. Regardless, the level of competition will be increasing each week from this point. Chadwick believes the two early losses showed him the adjustments that needed to be made in order for his team to step up come playoff time.
“You hate to say there’s such a thing as a good loss, but the losses to Thomas County and Lovett were good losses,” Chadwick said in a Thursday phone interview. “They helped us evaluate who and what we are. We made some changes.”
Most of the changes were personnel-based, allowing players like senior halfback Matt Perez and senior lineman Derek Homrich to emerge as leading contributors. Quarterback Chase Martenson has improved weekly, and defensive back Trey Oates has developed into a lock-down cover guy, who always draws the opponent’s biggest weapon.
Chadwick also made a change in his substitution philosophy. “We’re seeing more spread, no-huddle, fast-paced teams,” he said. “So we felt like we needed to focus more on depth and getting more guys in there playing faster and harder.”
As the War Eagles’ prepare to take on Carver, before heading to the playoffs, Chadwick, like other coaches, includes his team in his list of contenders, just not at the very top.
“We’re right there in that second group,” he said.
The Unbeatens: Three teams are looking to cap undefeated regular seasons this week. No. 1 Sandy Creek (8-0-1) is at Columbus. The Patriots have won 41 consecutive region games and haven’t lost in the regular season since Week 1 of the 2009 season. No. 2 Griffin (9-0) hosts Woodland (Stockbridge). A win would give the Bears the top-seed out of Region 4-AAAA. No. 3 Monroe Area hosts Eastside. Eastside beat the Purple Hurricanes, 35-0, last season. Monroe Area has already locked up the top seed out of Region 8-AAAA.
Last chance: Two winless teams meet Saturday at Avondale Stadium, where 0-9 South Atlanta faces 0-9 Redan. South Atlanta has lost 16 consecutive games overall, including a 24-18 defeat to Redan to end last season. Dougherty (0-9) and Spalding (0-9) also are looking to avoid winless seasons this week.
Good news: Cedartown senior defensive back Caleb Ely is expected to make a full recovery from the head injury he suffered in last week’s game against Gilmer. Ely collapsed on the sidelines late in the third quarter and was taken to the hospital, where he underwent surgery to alleviate swelling in his brain. Ely was moved out of intensive care this week and plans on returning home early next week, according to his mother, Malindy Ely.
Playoffs at stake: Americus-Sumter visits Crisp County on Friday, with the winner claiming the fourth seed out of Region 1-AAAA. … In Region 5-AAAA, Alexander can clinch its first trip to the playoffs since 1997 with a win over Fayette County.
News: Donnie Branch, who coordinated three state championship defenses before becoming LaGrange’s head coach in 2011, has resigned. He will coach LaGrange’s final regular-season game Friday night at Carrollton. Scoop Todd Holcomb has more.