Westover's Dalviness Greene, center, and the Patriots face a must-win against Monroe tonight to make the playoffs, while the Tornadoes find themselves in the same boat.
ALBANY -- The playoffs start tonight.
Well, not really, but it's just a matter of semantics for Westover and Monroe's playoff-hungry kids, who meet tonight at Hugh Mills Stadium in what is a playoff game in everything but name.
"It's a playoff game,'' said Westover coach Octavia Jones, whose team can nail down a playoff berth with a win against city rival Monroe.
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WHO: Monroe (4-5, 2-3 in 1-AAA) vs. Westover (4-5, 2-3 in 1-AAA)
WHAT: Huge Region 1-AAA showdown that will send one team to playoffs and one team home.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
WHERE: Hugh Mills Stadium.
LIVE UPDATES: Go online, log on and follow the game at: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
Well, the Tornadoes are about 99 percent in if they win, because even if Worth County beats Crisp County to force a three-way tie for the final two playoff spots, Monroe has a huge edge in the third tiebreaker scenario -- points allowed against Crisp and Worth. If Crisp wins in Sylvester and Monroe wins, the Tornadoes are in the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.
But the bottom line tonight at Hugh Mills is that there's no doubt the loser goes home.
"That's right,'' said Monroe coach Charles Truitt. "You can't worry about anything else but that. The loser goes home.''
Call it sudden death, or a playoff game, or anything you like -- there's no tomorrow for the loser.
"I like that,'' Monroe running back and Herald Dynamite Dozen selection Devine Noel said this week at practice.
Westover's Chris Green, a monster defensive tackle who is also a Dynamite Dozen selection, feels the same way.
"I like pressure,'' Green said. "We should have won more games, but we can't worry about the past. We know we have to win this game or go home.''
Both teams are 2-3 in the region and 4-5 overall, and both have had some tough luck and could have easily clinched a playoff spot already with a break or two. Westover may have had the toughest luck of any team in Georgia. The Patriots were in every game until the final minute, and could easily be 9-0 and playing to win the region title tonight.
"I feel like we should not have been in this position (to win or go home),'' Westover defensive lineman Derrick Akins said. "I don't get frustrated. We should have played more as a team.''
The Patriots even had Cairo, which is unbeaten in the region, down 20-0, before losing a heartbreaker, 28-20 (it was 21-20 with 26 seconds left in the game). They fell to Americus-Sumter, 14-12, and lost to Worth County, 23-18. They lost their other two games by a total of five points, including a triple-overtime loss to Bainbridge, which is headed to the Class AAAA playoffs.
"We're playing one of the better teams in the state,'' Truitt said. "They've lost a lot of close games. You can look back at those games and see where they could have won. Coach (Octavia) Jones) has done a great job there. The region will be well-represented in the playoffs. This region is good enough to have someone show up in the Final Four.''
Truitt and Jones have delivered the same speech to their kids that nothing matters except what's in front of us, because once you're in the playoffs anything can happen -- they just have to win tonight.
"We're in the same spot Colquitt County was in last year,'' Jones said of the Class AAAAA Packers. "They were 5-5 and they won in the playoffs and played for the state championship in the Georgia Dome.''
Westover has a player, Alec Daniels, from that Colquitt County team, and Jones had Daniels speak to his teammates about Colquitt's run this week.
The feeling at Westover is if the Patriots can get the breaks now they didn't get earlier in the season, they can make a run to the Dome. But they have to beat their biggest rival to do it.
"We're at ground zero,'' Jones said. "I think going through all the adversity we went through should help.''
It's difficult to measure what a playoff berth would mean to Westover, which has had only four winning seasons in its history.
"To me, it would mean a lot, because in high school I have always been on a losing team,'' Akins said. 'I might not play in college, so I want to make the best of high school.''
Green feels the same.
"I've never been a part of a winning season. Ever since I've been in high school I've always wanted to know what the playoffs are all about," he said. "Now we have it in our faces. We want to seize the opportunity.''
Last year, Monroe and Westover played for the city championship, and that's still at stake tonight, but no one is talking about being the best team in Albany. It's all about the postseason, but the rivalry itself makes this a big game, and now it has become the game of the year.
Hugh Mills should be packed for this one.
"There's so much at stake,'' Jones said. I'm almost certain there will be a large crowd, and that's good for the city. But for us, we don't care if there's five people or 500. We've got to win the game. One of my assistant coaches put it best. He said the team that stops hitting first is the team that's going to lose.''
Monroe missed the playoffs last year and came back with a strong team and an explosive offense that features sophomore quarterback Charles Stafford, who has thrown for more than 2,000 yards this season. But the matchups couldn't be better tonight
Stafford can beat anyone, but he's playing against a Westover defense that loves to stop the pass. The Patriots have more than 30 sacks and have picked off 13 interceptions.
"They're going to bring folks,'' Truitt said. "And they've got skilled players in their secondary. They intercepted a pass last year and ran it back for a touchdown against us. We match up well against each other.''
That's because Westover loves to run the ball behind its talented offensive line, and Monroe is tough against the run.
"It's the perfect matchup, because we like to throw and they're good against the pass, and they like to run and we've been good against the run,'' Truitt said.
Westover's bread-and-butter back Dalviness Greene is coming off a groin injury but should play tonight, and Noel is coming off a foot injury. Still, both teams are loaded with talent all over the field.
"There's no better team to play a game like this against than Westover,'' said Noel of the rivalry. "It's a playoff game and it's against Westover. I like that it's do-or-die. It will be a great game. It will make everyone play harder and think smarter and make better decisions.
"It's win or go home.''