One of the primary reasons for Westover’s success this year has been the quarterback play of T.J. Cromer, who continues to run the offense with ease and come up with big plays when the Pats need them most. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WHO: South Effingham (7-5) at Westover (8-3).
WHAT: GHSA Class AAAA state playoffs, second round.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Hugh Mills Stadium.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports
ALBANY— Octavia Jones knows his kids have never been here before, but the coach who turned the program around at Westover, isn’t worried about being a pioneer.
He loves it.
“We’re in uncharted waters, but the water feels warm. It may get colder later, but it feels warm right now,” said Jones, whose team became the first in the school’s history to host a state playoff game last week. Then they made even more history by beating No. 7-ranked Jonesboro, 26-21, at Hugh Mills Stadium.
And when South Effingham, a fourth seed, upset top-seeded Westside Macon last week, Westover won another home game.
That’s where the Patriots (8-3) will be Friday night.
“When I found out we were playing at home again, I didn’t believe it,” said Herald Dynamite Dozen running back Dalviness Greene, who has rushed for 1,460 yards this season.
People are starting to believe in Westover, which has won five in a row and seems to get better each week.
“At the beginning of the season people were saying, ‘You are just the same old Westover, you’re not going to go anywhere,’ ” said Nytrellis Ross, a senior defensive back. “Now everybody wants to support us. They’re all saying, ‘Go get them!’ People believe in us now.’’
Greene feels the same way.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in us,’’ he said. “We had a lot of doubters. I think we proved them wrong.”
The Patriots shocked Jonesboro, which had beaten them, 34-12, back on Sept. 7. But Westover was missing several key players in that game and brought back Dynamite Dozen linebacker Don Mills, defensive end Josh Burton, Ross and others, including Shannon Saunders, who missed most of the season with injuries. He returned in the ninth game of the season and rushed for 103 yards on 14 carries to end the season. He then ran for 208 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns against Jonesboro, and he also played linebacker and receiver.
“We were really excited to get (Saunders) back,” senior receiver Kell Miller said. “He gives us plenty of offensive weapons. He had a big game against Jonesboro. Everybody had a big game.’’
Miller thinks taking that first step and beating Jonesboro was huge — for the team and for the program — and knows every game from here will be more difficult.
“It feels like we just have to work harder every week now to get where we want to go,’’ he said. “We have to step it up a notch.’’
No one is taking South Effingham (7-4) for granted. The Mustangs have won three in a row and beat No. 1 Westside Macon, 43-33, on the road to get here.
“They have to be a good team to be here,’’ Jones said. “They like to run the football and have a Division 1 running back.’’
That’s Joshua Mercer, who has already committed to North Carolina State. Mercer has gained 1,235 yards on 183 carries (6.75 average) and scored 22 touchdowns, but he’s only part of the Mustang backfield that likes to control the game. Codaro Leverett has rushed for 867 yards on 119 carries (7.29 average), and scored 10 touchdowns. South Effingham is averaging 245 yards on the ground per game.
Greene said Westover would be ready to match the intensity Friday — even though South Effingham is a fourth seed.
“We’re going in with the mindset that they are a better than us and that we have to play above our capabilities,’’ Greene said. “We’re looking at it like it’s the state championship and play every play like it’s our last play. That’s what you have to do in the playoffs.
“We’re in the second round now and it’s bigger than just playing for Westover. It’s playing for Dougherty County. It’s playing for the city of Albany. It’s like that for us and Monroe (which plays Burke County in the second round of the playoffs on Friday).’’
It could come down to the running game and the play of the offensive line, which dominated Jonesboro last week. Both programs are excited to be where they are today.
“When they won last week, that was the first playoff win in the program (at South Effingham) in their school history,’’ Jones said. “They are a lot like us. They haven’t had a lot of postseason success. They are come in here scrappy and hungry.”
Westover likes to run, too, but quarterback T.J. Cromer, who rushed for 70 yards against Jonesboro, has thrown nine touchdown passes and completed 98 of 173 passes for 1,327 yards in the regular season.
A brutal non-region schedule against Class AAAAAA Tift County, Class AAAAA Lee County and Jonesboro helped get Westover ready for its unforgettable season. The fourth game of the season was the Region 1-AAAA opener against Monroe, a 17-14, win that ultimately gave Westover the home field in the opening round of the playoffs.
Jones told them if they got the home-field advantage there would be a Patriot painted in the middle of the field at Hugh Mills, and when the kids saw it they were inspired.
“When I saw the Patriot, that was a special moment for me,’’ Greene said. “It really made me feel like we accomplished one of our goals, but to see it … It was a heartfelt feeling. I got a little emotional.’’
The Westover kids said it helped motivate them. And it will be there again Friday.
This is simply a different Westover team, a better, more determined Westover team than at any point this season.
“The way I’m looking at it, we’re just starting to peak, and from now on I think we will play even better,” Greene said.
Jones didn’t argue that.
“We’re about 20 times better at this point than we were at the beginning of the year,” he said. “We started out with a good mentality, and midway in the season we started to get a grip on what we wanted to do and kept getting better. By the end of the season, the offense started clicking and we took that into the playoffs. But we haven’t played our best football yet.
“The ultimate goal is the state championship. We know we have to take care where we are at right now and win the next game. The seniors don’t want it to end. They are really stepping up and leading the way. No one wants it to end.’’