Region title and bragging rights at stake as Hawks, Lions meet
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
As far as high school football rivalries in Coweta go, it’s the appetizer to the main course on the menu this week. East Coweta and Newnan have been playing annually longer than any Heritage School or Trinity Christian player has been alive in a series that dates back to 1992.
But make no mistake. Some appetizers are just as tasty and can leave one hungering for more. And the importance Friday’s second meeting between the Hawks and Lions at East Coweta Middle School goes one step beyond this year’s equally anticipated Indians-Cougars clash in Sharpsburg.
“The game speaks for itself. If you can’t get up for this game, then something’s wrong with you,” Trinity Christian head coach Chris Hanson, who played in three East Coweta-Newnan games during his varsity career a bit further down Highway 154 in Sharpsburg wearing purple and gold. “We have an opportunity to do something special. They’ve got an opportunity to do something special. The stage has been set. It’s just which team is going to show up and execute.”
Heading into the final week of the regular season, the odds of a Region 2-AAA trophy being hoisted by one of the two county lineups are 2:1. Both the Hawks and Lions sit at 3-1 in a three-way tie for first with Stratford Academy.
The Heritage School (8-1), coming off its only loss of the season at home to Tattnall last week in a 3-point game that featured five Hawks turnovers, needs a victory to clinch the first varsity football championship of its seven-year history.
“After the game, when I saw how upset it made them, it made me feel good for them to have that kind of attitude,” Heritage School head coach Kevin Prisant said after having the program’s longest winning streak stopped at eight following a 38-35 home loss to Tattnall Square last Friday. “They’re starting to feel [that] they’re supposed to win games. And I’m sure that’s the way Chris and them feel over there. They’ve gotten to that point. We’ve both gotten there different ways. But we’re there. And it’s about to become a legitimate rivalry.”
Trinity Christian (6-3), which won an 8-man title in the Independent Christian Schools of Georgia and Alabama before making the jump to the GISA in 2011, needs a victory and a Stratford loss Friday against Westminster of Augusta (6-3, 0-4) to avoid a three-way tie for first and a mini-tiebreaker most likely to be played Monday.
“What we’re trying to say to them is we want to be the first team in Coweta County to win a GISA football title. We want to be the first ones with a football trophy in our school,” said Prisant. “And we also don’t want to allow them to have it.”
Neither head coach, however, was even concerned with that topic during Tuesday practices. The only numbers being mentioned were the jerseys of respective opposing players — with each running back wearing No. 7 prominent among discussions.
At Trinity, the name of Hawks’ No. 7, senior Candler Rich, was answered in unison with such ease during scout team drills as if Lions players had been asked “Who was the first President of the United States?” The 1,000-plus yard rusher leads a Heritage offense that is still averaging 44.3 points in its eight contested games (forfeit from Arlington Christian).
Despite throwing three interceptions last week, senior quarterback Joe Bonner has been otherwise steady since his return to the lineup mid-year. The Hawks, who went 5-0 under sophomore backup Brad Macke, have shown more depth and versatility — including the move of guard Tyler Nix to fullback when needed — than in last year’s meeting.
A group of a dozen seniors — all sophomores when both Hanson and Trinity defensive coordinator J.P. Weaver were assistants at Heritage under Danny Cronic — have emerged as the nucleus of the success.
“Candler’s a great player and he’s just a upstanding young man, but they’re talented beyond just him. Coach Prisant and Coach [D.J.] Clay have done a tremendous job,” Hanson said. “I think we’re going to have a big crowd. J.P. and I were there. We know these kids. They’re a good group of young men and they have great support staff, a great school. But we have a great support staff and we have a great school.”
It’ll be up to a much-improved Lions defense to slow Heritage down. In Weaver’s second year, Trinity’s scoring defense has dropped from 31.8 points last year to just 14.6 over its eight contested games (also a forfeit win from Arlington) so far.
“We had our growing pains early,” Hanson said “I think our guys are understanding what we’re asking of them as coaches. I think they’re understanding of what they’re asking of each other as teammates. And that helps you succeed in the number of opportunities that you have.”
Heritage’s defensive unit, led by junior end Tyler Henson’s 10 sacks, has been arguably the more improved. Prior to last week’s 38-point outburst by Tattnall — heightened by five Hawks turnovers — the lineup hadn’t allowed more than 22 to an opponent all season while still averaging just 17 points per game after their first loss.
“They’re fast. They’ve got a lot of speed up front and they’re able to disrupt a lot of things That goes back to coach Clay and what he teaches,” Hanson said of Heritage’s defense. “You’ve just got to be ready to attack. It’s going to be who’s going to attack who first.”
Last year’s first meeting — a 35-13 win by the Hawks at home — may as well be a moot point considering both Trinity’s improvement and an influx of new faces that have created chemistry of its own after 10-plus weeks of practice.
It includes an entirely new group of linebackers including sophomore Diego Henriquez — one of the Lions leading tacklers — and seniors Jay Warner and Drew Gibson, both in their first year with the team after transferring from East Coweta and Northgate, respectively. At one point of Heritage’s offensive drills, both of the latter were mentioned by name after the Hawks’ scout defense made an early stop.
Earlier as Clay’s defensive got a glimpse at Trinity through the Hawks’ scout-team offense, the Heritage defensive coordinator reminded his cornerbacks of the abilities of Lions junior Dee Snelling on a ball that got behind them. Snelling, Gibson and Warner — who wear’s Trinity’s No. 7 jersey — all have provided talent at the skill positions.
Snelling and cornerback David Shoates have been as dangerous in the secondary, with Snelling posting at least two games this year with multiple interceptions. He also had an 85-yard return that helped Trinity outlast Mount de Sales during a Saturday game at home.
“As far as last year, we’re just getting into that competition. JP and I knew the competition, but the guys didn’t understand it,” Hanson said. “I think they understand now that this is tough-nosed football and we’ve got to be ready to go.
Senior Connor Adams has equally excelled in his first year behind center in an I-based offense, using his surrounding talent as well as his own abilities to improve a scoring average just over 10-points a game in 2011 to 27.5 so far this year under first-year coordinator Ryan McCoy.
Among his concerns, Prisant listed Warner and Snelling — both with breakaway speed — near the top of the list.
“Handing that ball to No. 7 [Warner] and throwing it to No. 1 [Snelling],” Prisant said. “The biggest improvement to me, regardless of these guys, is that they’ve stuck to something. They have an identity. Last year they were shooting from the hip being in GISA that first year.”
Despite all the matchups, though, both rival head coaches feel Friday’s game will again come down to the basics of football to eventually decide this year’s Region 2-AAA champion during the final week of the regular season.
“It’s going to come down to who executes the best, who has the most physicality and who makes the least mistakes. You win the turnover battle, your chances of winning go up,” said Hanson.
Added Heritage’s Prisant, “They know what we’re going to do. We know what they’re going to do. It’s up to us to capitalize when we have a shot. Take away their big plays. They’re going to try and take away our big plays.”
In the end, however, Coweta football may have earned the biggest victory in the GISA, posting a 6-2 combined record against region opponents while 4-2 against three well-established Macon schools with a combined 23 state titles.
“If you had told me last year that we would have this record and Trinity would have their record, I would have told you that you were a liar,” Prisant said. “Both of us have done something for Coweta. Football’s always been good in Newnan. East Coweta’s always going to be competitive. Tommy [Walburn]’s done a tremendous job at Northgate. It’s good for the community. People get fired up and it’s something to play for. You’ve got the bragging rights.”
That’s what you call a rivalry.