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PREVIEW: Westwood begins its march to 3rd straight state title tonight

Westwood football coach Ross Worsham and the Wildcats host the first round of the GISA Class AA state playoffs tonight.

Westwood football coach Ross Worsham and the Wildcats host the first round of the GISA Class AA state playoffs tonight.

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WHO: No. 3 seed Briarwood (6-4) at No. 2 Westwood (8-2).

WHAT: First round of the GISA Class AA state playoffs.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Camilla.

LIVE SCORING UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldsports.

CAMILLA — This time it’s going to be tricky.

No one at Westwood kids themselves about what’s in front of the Wildcats, who face a completely different path this year than the one they walked down the last two seasons en route to back-to-back state titles.

It’s already been a different journey throughout the season, one they won’t forget in Camilla — or anywhere else in GISA, where a lot of folks thought Westwood would hit a wall the minute the Wildcats moved up to Class AA this year.

Instead, they ran right through it.

And now they plan to run to another state title. That’s right, a Class AA title this time. Sure, the road will be longer and bumpier, and there’s even more road to travel because Westwood won’t have the advantage of being at home after tonight — and, oh yeah, the competition is bigger and better.

But some things stay the same.

“We still expect to win. We don’t hope to win, we expect to win,’’ said Westwood coach Ross Worsham, who watched his team win 26 games in a row during a remarkable two-year winning streak that resulted in back-to-back Class A state titles.

But then came the move to AA this fall, plus Westwood lost a big group of talented seniors — including the coach’s son, quarterback and two-way starter Mason Worsham, who was The Herald’s People’s Choice Player of the Year last season.

“A lot of people thought when we moved to AA after losing a big senior class (nine seniors who played both ways) that this would be kind of a rebuilding year for us,’’ Worsham said. “But our kids didn’t look at it that way. This group was just as much a part of our success last season.’’

And here they are, starting the playoffs tonight with the same expectations they had the past two years. Westwood, the No. 2 seed, opens against No. 3-seeded Briarwood (6-4) tonight at Centennial Stadium in Camilla, where the Wildcats have a 19-game home winning streak in what is affectionately called the “Wood Yard.”

They didn’t just get here, they arrived with some pop. Westwood could have padded its schedule, but the Wildcats played arguably the toughest schedule in all of AA. They opened with Piedmont, the defending AA state champ, and traveled to Macon in Week 2 to play Stratford, which played for the Class AAA state title a year ago.

Westwood beat Piedmont, 40-21, and then the winning streak — which had reached 27 games by then — ended against a much bigger Stratford team. The Wildcats, however, jumped right back on the horse and won five in a row before losing to Valwood, the top-ranked AA team in GISA, on the road. They won their last two region games to finish the season at 8-2 with only one loss to a AA team, and they enter the playoffs ranked No. 3 in the AA state poll behind Valwood and John Milledge.

Not bad for the new kids in the AA neighborhood.

Westwood still lives by the run and a tough defense, and running backs J.T. Edore, a junior, and Chason Worsham, a sophomore, led the way.

Edore rushed for 16 touchdowns and 995 yards on just 99 carries, averaging more than 10 yards every time he touched the ball, and Chason gained 612 yards on 68 carries and scored 12 times. Jamie Davis, who also plays tight end, leads the defense from his linebacker spot, where the junior is a three-year starter.

“It wasn’t a rebuilding year. We could have (had a better record) if we played smaller schools, but we played good teams,’’ said quarterback Mitch Good, a senior. “We proved a point that we didn’t go to AA hoping to make the playoffs. We went to AA expecting to win.’’

Good has had a big year, throwing and running for more than 1,100 yards. He has rushed for 563 yards and 10 touchdowns and completed 37 of 77 passes for 539 yards and five TDs.

“We want to win,’’ Good said. “All of us know what we have to do to get to the state championship. We know how good the competition will be. We know we have to step up.”

Westwood has done that all year. Not only did the Wildcats have to face bigger teams, but they’ve been ravaged by injuries.

“Some years you don’t get many injuries and others you do. It’s like it’s contagious,’’ said the coach, who has had to patch both sides of his line, finding another piece of the puzzle from week to week. “We have had a lot of young kids step up: Reid Carr (a sophomore offensive tackle), Hayes Grogan (a junior guard), Ridge Collins (a sophomore tight end/cornerback), T.J. Robertson (a junior defensive tackle) and Tristan Swan (a junior linebacker). These are kids who worked hard and had production on the scout team and stood out with great effort. They have all stepped up this year.”

There has never been a lack of effort at Westwood, where they have overcome the odds before, and this year’s team embodies that idea as well as any.

“This team has a lot of heart,’’ said Dylan Larkin, a four-year starter at center who will be making his 48th consecutive start tonight. “When we moved to AA there was more pressure, and we were playing tougher teams, but we came together and we still believed we could win. It hurt to lose the streak, but it showed us we needed to improve. We grew up a lot this year.”

Brody Collins, a senior receiver who leads Westwood in receptions (26 for 280 yards and two touchdowns) felt the same way about the streak.

“Losing the streak was a bummer. We had to get over it,’’ he said. “It hit us hard. But it was a motivator. It made us work harder.’’

They did — and then some.

The only streak that is important now is a run at the state title. The Wildcats will be home to tonight but if they win they travel to Edmund Burke, a No. 1 seed that had a first-round bye and will host the second round. No one is sure if Westwood would get to host the state semifinals, but one thing is certain: If Westwood reaches the state title game and Valwood is there, the game will be in Valdosta.

No one said it would be easy.

“They know how to win,’’ coach Worsham said of his team, which has a 34-2 record over the past three seasons. “And they expect to win. I think we’re ready to get on a roll and play for the state championship on Nov. 30.’’