SYLVESTER -- Is it too soon to be talking about a benchmark game in Region 1-AAA, the kind of game that might define a season?
"Not for us,'' said Worth County coach Scotty Ward, whose team plays Westover in a critical game tonight in Sylvester. "It's early, but for us it's like a playoff game for us. We're 0-1 and we've got to win. If we win, we control our own destiny. If we lose, we'll have to be looking for other folks to help us out.''
No one wants that.
Worth has been on the biggest elevator ride in Southwest Georgia so far this season. The Rams opened the year with an inspiring double-overtime victory against state-ranked Fitzgerald and then smashed Turner County the next week, vaulting the Rams into the state's Top 10 poll at No. 8 and sending a message to the Region 1-AAA teams that Worth would be a force once region played rolled around.
Then the floor dropped out.
The Rams were beating state-ranked Cook 14-7 with five minutes left when two big plays turned the game around in a 28-14 loss.
Then things turned from bad to worse.
The Rams followed that with a hard-fought, 21-7, loss to Class AAAAA Tift County and then opened Region 1-AAA last week with another tough loss to Americus-Sumter, falling 20-12 on a night when a break here or there could have turned that game around.
Suddenly, Worth is 2-3 and 0-1 in a region where there is little wiggle room.
"This is like the biggest game we have played this season,'' said Tray Frager, who starts on both sides of the line as a tight end on offense, and as a defensive tackle and defensive end on defense. "It's like we are barely on this side of the hill, but if we win, we're right back on top of the hill. But if we lose, we're 0-2 (in region) -- and that's a big hole.''
While the Rams are worried about getting their footing at Worth, they're trying to keep their feet on the ground at Westover, where last week's 13-0 win against Dougherty meant everything to a program that has struggled for years.
After the win, Westover coach Octavia Jones called the game the cornerstone for his program. It also gave Westover a 1-0 start in the region race, and if the Patriots pull off a win tonight, they will be 2-0 in a seven team region where three wins might guarantee a playoff spot.
The Patriots haven't had much success against Worth and enter the game with a 6-18 record against the Rams, who have won 10 of the last 13 meetings. A victory not only means a perfect region start for the Patriots, but will build confidence on a team that not many gave a chance to do much this season. That's what Jones, a first-year coach, is fighting -- a perception that has lingered for years.
"It doesn't matter what anyone says outside of here,'' said Jones, standing on the Westover football field and pointing to his team. "It only matters what we think. And we believe we have a chance to win every time we walk on the field.''
That attitude has already made a difference at Westover, and it won't just grow with a win tonight. It could take on a new life of its own.
The Patriots aren't just gaining confidence, they're healthier now than they have been all season, and they got 6-foot-7, 315-pound offensive lineman Trent Brown back last week. And sophomore running back Dalviness "Deion" Greene looks better every week. In a defensive struggle last week, Greene rushed for 118 yards and he has now gained 422 yards since taking off in the third game of the season.
"(Greene) has been the biggest surprise for us this season,'' said Jones, who loves to run the ball.
Pats QB Justin Taylor and Steve Bowens have also shown flashes of brilliance this season, and receiver Kenneth Townes came up with the biggest play of the game last week when he went 64 yards for a TD after catching a mere five-yard pass.
The other factor is that Westover is coming off a shutout against Dougherty, and Worth has had trouble scoring.
"We have played well defensively,'' Ward said. "We just haven't played well offensively.''
That could change tonight. Martinez Wilcher, a 6-foot-1, 270-pound tackle, returns to the offensive line after missing two weeks with a knee injury and Savon Farley, who was the All-Region special teams First Team selection last year, returns after missing two weeks with a shoulder injury. Farley had more than 150 yards in punt returns alone against Turner and has the ability to turn a close game around.
Frager and linebackers C.J. Hurley, Dontavis Jones and Chris Ford have led the defense and Worth has had big running games from Ellis Anderson and Jhue Rhodes. But the added spark of Farley might be just what the Rams need.
That is, if the three-game losing streak hasn't crippled the team.
And Ward doesn't think it has.
"We had a great week of practice,'' Ward said after his team came off the field Thursday. "We haven't thrown in the towel. The kids are still working hard.''
And they still believe.
Frager likes to point out in his geographic metaphor that it's only a hill and not a mountain to climb, and that's the prevailing attitude at Worth.
"Our goal is to win the region,'' Worth quarterback Will Peacock said. "That was the goal (in August) and that hasn't changed. We want to finish first in the region and put Worth back on the map.''
Maybe that's why none of the Worth players talk about the three-game losing streak. They all talk about what's ahead.
"If we win (tonight), it will give us our momentum back,'' Hurley said. "It will be just like the momentum we had when we beat Fitzgerald. We'll be moving forward with momentum.''
Does that sound like a team that has lost three in a row?
"They know we've played well,'' Ward said. "We just haven't finished to get the win at the end. Being 2-3 isn't what you want, but no one has given up hope.''
And a win tonight changes everything.
"We're still confident,'' Peacock said. "We know we can play better than the way we've been playing. We need to play the way we played when we beat Fitzgerald. That's the way we're supposed to play.
"(The three-game losing streak) is just a bump in the road.''