Stratford Academy will have to find a way to stop Deerfield’s record-setting running back Kh’Ron McClain, right, if it has any hope of upsetting the heavy favorite Knights tonight in the state semis. And considering McClain has simply run over and away from opposing defenses all year — and DWS has already beaten Stratford once — Deerfield just needs to take care of business again to reach next week’s state title game. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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WHO: Stratford Academy (8-3) at Deerfield-Windsor (11-1).
WHAT: GISA Class AAA state semifinals.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
WHERE: Webb Memorial.
RADIO: 107.7 FM.
LIVE SCORING UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldsports.
ALBANY — This time it’s not about revenge.
It’s about that and a whole lot more.
There’s still a sign hanging in the Deerfield-Windsor weight room with the number 368, a painful reminder of last year’s GISA Class AAA state semifinal loss to Stratford, which rushed for 368 yards against the Knights while ending DWS’ season.
And that’s part of what motivates Deerfield in tonight’s rematch with Stratford. Wouldn’t you know it, a year later the two teams are meeting again in the state semifinals. This time the game is at Webb Memorial Stadium and not in Macon, and this time Deerfield will be the favorite.
That’s because the Knights took their revenge out on Stratford earlier this year with a 45-27 win that made up for a lot.
It’s not revenge (well, OK, maybe a little), this time. This game is all about the prize that awaits the winner, a berth in the state title game. If the Knights win, they know they will be at home next week playing for it all, and that’s what is driving them now.
“Beating them (earlier this year) helped out a lot,’’ DWS two-way lineman Patrick Forrestal said. “But it doesn’t do enough. We want to make it to the final game, and there’s no way to get there without beating Stratford. That’s the goal, to get to the state championship.’’
And with a little icing on top.
“I’m ready to do to them what they did to us last year,” Forrestal said.
In the rematch, however, it will be Stratford looking to avenge the early season loss, and it won’t be the same Stratford team that DWS beat Sept. 14.
“They’ve changed since then, and they’ve changed for the better,” DWS coach Allen Lowe said. “They have made some personnel changes the last three or four games, and they’re better. They like to run the ball, but after we played them they went to the spread, and now they are back to knocking your butt off the ball. They went from the spread back to the I (formation) and running the football. And they have made some changes on their offensive line. They had an offensive line of all seniors last year who graduated, and during the season they have changed some personnel on their line, and they’re better up front.’’
Lowe said it’s difficult to prepare for Stratford’s defense because of the schedule.
“The last three teams they played don’t use a tight end,’’ Lowe said. “And we have a tight end, so I’m not sure how their personnel is going to line up against us.’’
Lowe knows one thing is certain: Stratford’s defensive game plan will be to try and stop Herald Dynamite Dozen tailback Kh’Ron McClain.
That may be the most difficult task in all of the GISA.
McClain is rewriting the record book at Deerfield, where Tony Zenon was a legend. Zenon not only led the Knights to back-to-back state title games, including a state championship in 2008, but he was the Herald John Reynolds Player of the Year in 2009 when he set all the rushing records at DWS before leaving for Georgia Tech.
McClain broke Zenon’s regular-season rushing record this year, eclipsing Zenon’s 2009 mark of 1,638 yards when McClain rushed for 1,704 — and counting. He also broke Zenon’s scoring record (186 points to Zenon’s 184), and has a chance to break Zenon’s single-season record for rushing, which includes playoff games. Zenon ran for 2,268 yards in 2009, and McClain has gained 1,966 — 302 yards shy of the record.
“We don’t really talk about records until the end of the year,” Lowe said. “But Kh’Ron has had a tremendous year.’’
McClain feels the same way about leaving the talk of individual honors for after the season ends.
“I would rather win the state title than have the records,’’ said McClain, who was a freshman when Zenon set the records and is still close friends with Zenon. McClain moved to Atlanta after his freshman year and came back to DWS last year as a junior. He wasn’t on the team in 2010 that won the state title game after briefly moving away again, but he was in the stands that night. Winning a title now — in his final year — would mean everything to McClain.
“When they beat us last year (in the semifinals), it hurt,’’ McClain said. “It hurt for a long time. It doesn’t hurt (now), but you remember it. But this game is about getting to the state title game. It wouldn’t matter who we are playing. We want the ring. It felt good to beat them, but this is different. It’s playoff time.’’
McClain is coming off a monster night in the playoffs. He rushed for 262 yards and three touchdowns, and also caught two passes for 73 yards, including a 53-yard TD, in Deerfield’s opening-night playoff win, 42-21, against defending state champ Tattnall Square last week.
Tattnall Square coach Barney Hester said McClain ran like a back possessed.
It’s the same feeling throughout the team. Deerfield lost in the state final when this year’s seniors were freshmen, then won it all when they were sophomores and then were eliminated in the semis last year.
“We talked about winning a state title since when we were in middle school,” said senior John Germany, who plays both ways at running back and linebacker. “We didn’t give up a touchdown on defense when we were in eighth grade and talked about it then.”
Deerfield’s defense once again hasn’t given up much this season. The first-team unit has allowed only two touchdowns during its last six games (five region wins and a playoff victory last week), and the Knights (11-1) bring a 10-game winning streak into the game.
DWS is very familiar with what it has to do on defense. Both of Stratford’s running backs — Austin Simmons and Ken Spears — each gained more than 1,000 yards last year and torched Deerfield in the state semifinals.
“They haven’t gained as much yardage this year,’’ Lowe said. “But that’s what they want to do, just run the ball down your throat. Their quarterback, John Mitchell, can hurt you with his feet. They’re definitely looking to run the football.’’
Simmons gained 102 yards last week in Stratford’s 24-7 win against Bulloch and now has rushed for 548 yards this season. Spears ran for 713 yards during the regular season, and those two backs will carry the load for Stratford (8-3).
The defense, however, will be ready like always.
“Our defense has really played well,’’ Lowe said. “We gave up some big plays at the beginning of the season, but we’ve really played well the last six games. Coach Rod Murray and coach Craig Rhodes do a fantastic job of getting them ready to play the game.’’
DWS linebacker Nick Michas leads all of GISA with 100 tackles, including 65 solos, and Matthew Fox, who has 86 tackles, set a school record with 11 sacks this season. Forrestal, who dominates the line of scrimmage, has made 72 tackles and has had two sacks. The senior, who committed to Navy last week, had two plays for losses last week against Tattnall.
McClain, who has three sacks and two interceptions, DWS quarterback Dallas Margeson, who has three interceptions, and running back KE’Marvin Pitts, who has three interceptions, all play in the secondary.
But no one at DWS is looking at numbers. It’s all about winning another state title for the Knights, who have won three, including two in the past four years.
“Our team chemistry is really good,’’ Lowe said. “When you get a team that’s playing for something other than themselves, you can accomplish a lot. It’s all about winning football games.
And they need one more win to get to the title game.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Lowe said. “It happens to be Stratford. They are the team standing between us and the state title game. Yes, we do remember how we felt when we walked off the field last year. This year we want to walk off the field feeling good about playing for the state championship.”