Octavia Jones, in his third year on the job, got the Westover football team into the playoffs.
WHO: Jonesboro (9-1) at Westover (7-3).
WHAT: GHSA Class AAAA state playoff opener for both teams.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Hugh Mills Stadium.
LIVE SCORING UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldsports.
ALBANY — This is a Westover football team no one will forget.
Octavia Jones has made sure of that.
Jones, who took over as the head football coach three years ago, vowed to change the program at Westover, where the Patriots had only four winning seasons in their history.
He’s done it.
His Patriots not only won (7-3) but made history by becoming the first team at Westover to host a playoff game. That’s what will happen at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Hugh Mills Stadium, where the Patriots face state-ranked Jonesboro in the opening round of the Class AAAA playoffs.
What happens afterward requires a little paint and a lot of pride. Every kid on this year’s Westover team will have his name painted on the locker room wall.
They will be unforgettable.
“It’s history,’’ Jones said. “I talked to them before every game about leaving their legacy, about leaving their mark on the program. I promised them if they did something special that every name would go up in the locker room.
“They all wanted to leave their legacy,” he added. “They all wanted to leave their mark. Every class wants to set the standard. I told them if we make it to the playoffs and host a playoff game every name will go up in the locker room. I think that was a big motivating factor for them. We did it and are the first team to be hosting a playoff game.”
That’s what Jones wanted more than anything when he gave up his job at Monroe, where he was one of the most respected track & field coaches in the state. His boys and his girls track & field teams brought home multiple state titles while he was at Monroe, his alma mater. But he left it all for the chance to change Westover.
“We needed to change the culture at Westover,” said Jones, who knew when he came to Northwest Albany that it was all about basketball at Westover, where the Patriots had won several state titles and were respected and feared throughout Georgia. No one respected the football program.
Now they do.
“I think this game goes a big way to change the culture,’’ Jones said. “To have the opportunity to host the first playoff game in history, it speaks volumes for the work they have put in, and they deserve to be in this position. The key was our non-region schedule.’’
The Patriots went 7-3, but could have gone 9-1 with an easier schedule. They played a brutal non-region schedule, opening up against Class AAAAAA Tift County, Jonesboro, and Lee County, which is in the Class AAAAA state playoffs this week.
“When he came to me with the non-region schedule, I tried to talk him out of it,’’ said Westover principal William Chunn, who was a successful football coach at Monroe. “But he insisted that he play those teams. He said it would make us better.”
It did. Westover beat Tift and led both Jonesboro and Lee County at halftime before losing. The only other loss came in a showdown between two unbeaten teams in the region to state-ranked Cairo, which beat Westover 31-7, thanks in part to two second-half interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Cairo went unbeaten in the Region 1-AAAA race and won its third consecutive region title.
Westover finished second, beating everyone else. It took a 43-yard field goal from Tanner Stumpe to beat city rival Monroe, 17-14, and it took a miracle catch by Jackie Childs, who made a leaping catch of a 34-yard TD pass from T.J. Cromer with 19 seconds left, to beat Americus-Sumter, 16-14.
After losing to Cairo, the Patriots won their final five games to storm into the playoffs with momentum, and they can add to the legacy with a victory on Friday night.
“Coach Jones made us believe in ourselves. He made us believe we could do good things for the program,’’ Dynamite Dozen linebacker Don Mills said after practice on Tuesday. “From the beginning, it’s been the seniors. When we were freshman we wanted to change things at Westover, even though we knew they didn’t have a good record in the past. It means a lot to be the first team to host a payoff game. No other team has done it at Westover, and we’re proud to be the first.’’
The Patriots have been led all year by Mills and Dynamite Dozen tailback Dalviness Greene, who set a school record by rushing for 1,460 yards on 186 carries (7.85 average) and 11 touchdowns. He also has caught 12 passes for 108 yards.
“It was one of the biggest things to me. It would be special to be the first team at Westover to host a playoff game,’’ Greene said after practice Tuesday. “We want to let everyone know we are for real. This is a step. We’re going in the right direction. We feel like we’re making progress.’’
Being in the playoffs is pretty special at Westover.
“We’ve never made the playoffs since I’ve been here,’’ senior offensive lineman Shombie Williams said. “We’ve never had that feeling. It’s sweet. It’s awesome. And being able to host it, that’s big. Coach Jones’ three years here has changed our whole mentality. He changed our effort. We never gave this kind of effort before.’’
A number of players had big years at Westover.
Cromer, who was injured most of his junior year, took over at quarterback and became a leader, completing 98-of-173 passes (.566) for 1,327 yards and nine touchdowns with nine interceptions. He also ran for 227 yards on 47 carries and rushed for seven touchdowns. The leading receiver is Childs, who made 17 receptions for 384 yards and five TDs, including both touchdowns in the Americus-Sumter game. His other touchdown catch in that game was a spectacular one-handed highlight-film reception.
The Patriots have had their moments, and played their first two games without two of their top players. Mills and Shannon Saunders, who plays linebacker, receiver and also runs the ball, were both injured. Mills came back in the third week of the season and leads the team in tackles with 68. Saunders missed most of the season with injuries and returned recently.
Neither played in the 34-12 loss to Jonesboro on Sept. 7, and the Patriots were also missing defensive end Josh Burton and defensive back Nytrellis Ross that night. That’s one of many reasons Westover feels good about facing the Cardinals (9-1) in a rematch.
“They scored on a kickoff return and they scored a touchdown on the last play of the game as the clock expired,” Jones said. “And they scored on that big 69-yard touchdown pass. We’re talking about 21 points right there.”
Westover pounded Jonesboro early with two long first-half drives, scoring on a 12-play, 52-yard drive and a 13-play 65-yard drive, and led 12-7 at halftime. Greene rushed for 78 yards in the first half.
But Jonesboro went to Cameron Sutton in the second half, and he changed the game. Sutton set up one touchdown with a long catch, scored twice and even ran in a two-point conversion. His 69-yard TD catch at the end of the third quarter gave Jonesboro a 22-12 lead, and he scored later on a 7-yard run to lift the Cardinals to a 28-12 lead.
Afterward Jones said Sutton’s 69-yard catch was the difference in the game. He was even more convinced that Sutton is the difference at Jonesboro when he talked about the playoff game this week.
“I have watched four game films on Jonesboro, and he was the difference in every game,” Jones said. “Time after time after time, he would come up with a big play. He did it every Friday night. He has done something in every ball game to win the game for them. When they need a play, here comes No. 7. I don’t feel so bad that he made plays against us. He made plays against everybody.
“He’s the best high school football player I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if you can really stop him,” Jones said. “We have to try to slow him down. Our best defense is our offense. We want to keep their offense off the field. We feel good about our running game.’’
Sutton, who has already committed to Tennessee, plays receiver and he also runs the ball from the slot back position or out of the Wildcat formation, and he plays in Jonesboro’s secondary,
After Jonesboro beat Westover, Sutton had nothing but praise for the Patriots.
“Oh, they’re a Top 10 team,” he said. “That was a battle.”
That’s exactly the kind of respect Jones was looking for when he came to Westover. He will get a lot more with a win on Friday night.