Herald High School Beat Writer Mike Phillips
There’s some unwritten law with coaches and players about not talking about games in the future. When players tell me they have to play them one game at a time, I always take a minute to explain that you can’t play two teams at once — just wouldn’t be fair.
But the big taboo about “future talk” doesn’t apply to writers or fans or anyone who follows sports.
We do it all the time.
So I thought I would just mention that we could be headed for a dream game in Albany. Westover and Monroe are each two wins away from facing each other in the state semifinals at Hugh Mills.
Yup, I know, that’s a long way off, but I love writing it: “Westover and Monroe meet at Hugh Mills with a trip to the Dome on the line.”
See how cool that looks in print?
Read it again: “Westover and Monroe meet at Hugh Mills with a trip to the Dome on the line.”
Makes you smile just reading it. Now say it out loud. See? You’re smiling even more.
I don’t know if they’ll get there, but they’re both going to win tonight. I know because I dropped by practice this week at both places. It was like walking into the Twilight Zone.
These kids are on a different planet right now. You can drag out all the clichés about being on a mission, about being focused, being one-mind, one team. And it wouldn’t be enough to explain what practice was like this week at both places.
I’m not saying they don’t work hard every week. You can’t imagine the work and long hours high school football coaches sacrifice, and their kids — at every school — amaze me at the discipline and effort they put in just to show up on Friday nights.
But this week was different.
Talk about the silent storm. There is a quiet sense of determination, a deep burning resolve at both schools. You can see it, feel it and taste it.
Nothing tastes sweeter to football players than life in the playoffs.
Westover has already made history and wants more. Dalviness Greene, Westover’s grit-and-guts tailback, told me the playoffs still feel like a dream.
“A dream with a fairytale ending,’’ he said.
Go ahead and pinch yourself, Westover. This is no dream. The Patriots are that good. And South Effingham is about to find out just how good.
Shannon Saunders’ 202-yard breakout game last week must be driving South Effingham crazy. Saunders was injured all season and played one half against Lee County and parts of the last two games before running all over Jonesboro last week.
He’s not a weapon. He’s an added weapon to an offense that was already good enough to make a strong run in the playoffs with Greene and quarterback T.J. Crower, who ran for 70 yards last week, leading the way.
Westover is going to win this game on the line of scrimmage, where all games in the playoffs are won. South Effingham got here by running the ball (averaging 245 rushing yards a game) and by upsetting No. 1 seeded Westside Macon, 43-33.
Some think Westover got a break playing a No. 4 seed, but Effingham proved it belonged in this game. And even if the Patriots did get a break, the kids from Northwest Albany have earned every break and more.
You can’t say enough about the job Octavia Jones has done at Westover. He’s given this team a sense of pride it simply didn’t have before.
That’s what you could see at practice this week — pride, quiet deep-down pride that is rising and bubbling over with every win, with every step into history.
That’s what Westover will carry into Hugh Mills tonight.
After never hosting a game in the state playoffs, Westover is at home again, and I hope they fill up Hugh Mills for this one. Greene said something else after practice this week.
“We’re not just playing for Westover,’’ he began, “we’re playing for Dougherty County. We’re playing for the city of Albany.”
Albany needs to show up tonight at Hugh Mills. You’re going to see some more history.
Prediction: Westover 31, South Effingham 20.
TORNADO WATCH IN WAYNESBORO: Of course, if you’re a Monroe fan, hopefully you make the trip to Waynesboro, where the Nadas face the defending state champs and one of the most electric players in the state.
Burke County (10-1) has not only won 10 in row but 22 of the last 23, including the 2011 state title. And the biggest reason is Gator Green, Burke’s elusive, lightning-quick quarterback. He does it all — and he is just as dangerous running back kicks and playing in the secondary as he is running the offense. If this kid finds space, he makes you pay.
But the Nadas can counter that.
Monroe junior QB Charles Stafford isn’t lightning quick.
Stafford has already thrown for more than 2,700 yards this season — that gives him more than 5,200 during the last two years. And get this: Stafford has racked up more than 1,200 yards in the air over his last four games. That’s a good season for a lot of quarterbacks.
The Herald Dynamite Dozen QB is big, strong, calm, collected and confident. Every time you talk to Stafford about facing a big-time quarterback, he just shrugs it off and talks about his defense.
He let you know everything you need to know about Monroe’s “Green Wall” defense this week when he said, “I wouldn’t want to face them.’’
They call Burke County’s stadium “The Bear Den,” and it will be rocking tonight, standing-room-only crazy with thousands of Bear Believers.
But it’s Monroe’s silence that wins this game. I don’t know if I have ever seen a more determined look in a high school player’s face than the one I saw this week when I talked to Herald Dynamite Dozen star Anthony Smith. He’s Monroe’s heart-and-soul linebacker, and he’s ready. So is Jawaski Randle, a wrecking-crew defensive back who — like every player on this team — loves the road and loves being the underdog.
Coach Charles Truitt has his kids ready, down to the bone, down to the where the heart meets the heat ready.
Of course, history is against them — Monroe has never gotten past the second round in the playoffs — but offensive lineman Hakeem Porter told me in August this was the Monroe team that would do it. I believed him then, and I believe him even more today.
Porter had a big game in last week’s 33-17 upset win against No. 5 state-ranked Griffin, and my guess is he and his buddies on the line are going to have another tonight.
All the buzz around the state surrounding this game is about Green and Burke’s run to another state title with a possible matchup next week between No. 3 ranked Burke County and No. 1-ranked Sandy Creek.
After tonight, they’ll be talking about Stafford and Monroe.
Prediction: Monroe 27, Burke County 20
DEERFIELD PREDICTION LOOKING GOOD: Speaking of talking about the future, I picked Deerfield-Windsor to win the GISA Class AAA state title a couple of months ago — if you remember, I said they wouldn’t lose another game somewhere around Week 3 or 4 — and I’ll play the cards I’ve already got when the Knights face Stratford in the semifinals tonight at Webb Memorial.
Everyone knows this is a rematch of last year’s state semifinal, and the kids at DWS remember what it felt like to lose that game. They had signs in the weight room all summer reminding them. They know. They really know.
That’s why they took Stratford apart back in September, 45-27, in a non-region game. Stratford has made some changes and is a lot better, but the kids at Deerfield are going to win tonight. This is the same DWS group that beat Tattnall Square, 20-19, in the regular season and then ripped Tattnall last week in the playoffs, romping out to a 28-0 lead before the Trojans knew what hit them. The final was 42-21, but it wasn’t that close.
Stratford faces the best defense in GISA and the best GISA player in the state in Kh’Ron McClain. He’s simply the best thing GISA has seen since Tony Zenon — now at Georgia Tech — led DWS to the 2008 state title and was named The Herald’s Player of the Year his senior season. They’re good friends and after McClain broke Zenon’s regular-season rushing record and points in a season record (186 to 184), Zenon called McClain and told him how proud he was of him.
McClain has rushed for 1,966 yards, 302 shy of Zenon’s season record he set in 2009.
Stratford will try all night to stop McClain. Good luck with that.
If you haven’t ever seen McClain run the ball, that’s a shame. I’m not going to lie to you — it’s just fun watching him.
He’s magic. He has an incredible talent for finding space to his left or right in the middle of a run and then getting there before you blink. You find yourself smiling — sometimes laughing — at the move he just made. Then he makes another, and you’re laughing again.
He makes defenses cry.
Last week, McClain, who rushed for 262 yards and three TDs and caught two passes for 73 yards, including a 53-yard catch-in-stride beauty for a touchdown, had a monster game against Tattnall.
The Tattnall kids hit McClain hard time and time again but he just kept breaking tackles and ran like a much bigger back all night. Tattnall’s defensive players kept yelling at McClain, telling him that the next time they hit him, he wasn’t getting up. McClain took some shots, but he made it a point not to just get up after the play — he jumped up. He didn’t need to say a word. He just popped back up. ’Nuff said.
It will be that way again tonight. DWS’ Big D — you know the leaders, Nick Michas, Matthew Fox, Patrick Forrestal, Nathan Horton — will pop up and put a dent in Stratford’s running game, and McClain will pop up in the end zone time and again. Look for QB Dallas Margeson, who was ill last week and threw only two passes (that’s right, both completions to McClain), to pop back up himself and have a big game on both sides of the ball.
Deerfield will then pop up next week, right back at Webb Memorial, where they will play for the state title.
Prediction: Deerfield 35, Stratford 17
TIME TO FEED THE BEAST THEY CALL WESTWOOD: They love Thanksgiving at Westwood, where for the past two years the kids from Camilla have practiced on Thanksgiving day just before going out and winning a state title. There’s no state title on the line tonight, but when I talked to the kids this week they all told me how they love that Thanksgiving practice. It’s become a tradition no one wants to see end.
The Wildcats will have to settle tonight for a state semifinal game and a possible trip to their third straight state title game. GISA tweaked the playoffs and everything is a week later this year. Of course, no one in GISA expected to see Westwood still in the playoffs. Nope, not at all.
When the Wonders moved up this past offseason from Class A, where they had won 26 in a row and back-to-back state titles, to AA, everyone in GISA thought it would put an end to Westwood’s Thanksgiving day practice plans.
That’s why we call them the Wonders around here in The Herald’s sports office. They don’t have the biggest kids or the fastest kids or more kids than anyone else. They just win. Pretty Wondrous.
They’ve won 36 of their last 38 games, and they have overcome stepping up to a bigger class, playing much bigger and faster schools and a rash of injuries to get to the GISA Class AA state semifinals. Wonder how they got here?
Ross Worsham could coach sheep into becoming goats.
He’s that good, and his kids believe in him and each other. And he’s got great kids. Don’t kid yourself (no goat pun intended), he’s got talent on this team, too. Lots of it. His running backs, J.T. Edore and Chason Worsham (yup, that’s his son), are some of the best in AA GISA, and Dylan Larkin, who has started every game for the past four years at center, leads a disciplined and tough set of linemen. Jamie Davis is one of the best linebackers in this league, and Mitch Good has stepped in at quarterback this year and done a remarkable job leading this team after the Wildcats lost The Herald’s People’s Choice Player of the Year winner Mason Worsham (yup, another son) to graduation.
But it’s the sum of their parts that makes Westwood so special. It’s been that way for the last 38 games, and it will be that way against Brentwood tonight. It will be that one big orange ball of Westwood kids who win this one.
Worsham likes to say that when you get to the playoffs, every game is a one-game season.
Guess who else says that?
Every player on this team. And they play like it, too. They will play like it tonight.
Prediction: Westwood 35, Brentwood 24
CHRISTMAS TO COME ‘EARLY’?: I’ve got a little side bet this week. I don’t bet money, but I do bet lunch, and someone told me the Screven County has a big running back who is averaging 138 yards a game. I bet that he doesn’t get that many yards against Early County.
They hit with heart at Early.
I’m sure Screven County’s big back, Jeremy Johnson, who is 5-foot-10 and 250 pounds, is tough and talented, and he will have his moments in tonight’s Class AA second-round game against Early, but I’ve said this before: Early is the most underrated Class AA team in Georgia.
Tonight, the rest of the state will take notice. Screven County is 10-1 and a No. 1 seed — and will be at home tonight in Sylvania, which is a five-hour bus ride for the Early kids. This a slam dunk around the state. Everyone will pick Screven County over No. 3 seed Early. But it’s not going to happen. The Bobcats play against the run as well as anyone, and the defense, which is led by linebacker Brakari Isom, will have to step up tonight to stop Johnson and the Gamecocks.
I believe they will.
No one had a harder time getting to the second round of the playoffs than Early, which plays in the most competitive region in the state and by far the most brutal region in GHSA Class AA. Brooks County, Fitzgerald, Early County and Cook are four of the best teams in Georgia, and Thomasville, which finished fifth and out of the playoffs, would have been finished in the top four in any other region in the state.
Early quarterback Jacori Taylor and tailback Ladonis Bryant give the Bobcats one of the best 1-2 punches in the state, and coach Trey Woolf’s players are more than battle-tested. They hammered a higher-seeded Bleckley County last week, and they’ll win again tonight.
Prediction: Early County 30, Screven County 28
ONE WIN AND ONE-AND-DONE: The GHSA Class A playoffs open tonight, and it’s a shame Mitchell County isn’t here. Larry Cornelius took over a program that lost 14 seniors and had only 12 kids in spring practice, but his team played well enough to be a playoff team. The new power-rating system took only two teams from Region 1-A, and Mitchell was left out.
Seminole County is going to beat Commerce and keep it’s unbelievable season alive, but Miller County is running into a Wilkinson County team that is loaded. I think the Pirates will play well tonight, but will probably just be overmatched.
PredictionS: Seminole 35, Commerce 14; Wilkinson County 26, Miller County 21