East Coweta looks to build on last year's win over Newnan
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
Over the past two years, Nigel Gay has worn both uniforms in the East Coweta-Newnan football rivalry. But he’s never been able to truly experience the annual game until this Friday’s highly anticipated matchup at Garland Shoemake Stadium.
East Coweta may be glad the senior is on its side in a matchup where any and every advantage can count.
A change of address due to family circumstances in between his sophomore year at Newnan and junior season at East Coweta left Gay, a two-way player, relegated to the junior varsity last fall. But after watching the Indians rally from a 19-0 halftime deficit for a 28-25 victory over the Cougars at Drake Stadium, it’s now up to this year’s lineup to keep the rivalry in the Indians’ favor.
More importantly, Friday’s game will again decide playoff positioning in the region standings from a pair of 3-1 lineups in 3-AAAAAA. The winner gets at least one more home game heading into the state playoffs while the loser will have to open the postseason on the road.
For Gay, who finished with seven catches for 130 yards in last week’s 38-35 victory at Douglas County, finally has the chance to play in the most-celebrated, high-school sporting event in the county during the school year. At times, other sports have provided as much drama if not more between the two schools. But none are able to attract the same type of crowd.
“It feels like forever. It means a lot because this is really my first year,” said Gay. “I’m just ready for it, the atmosphere and everything.”
It’s also the one game where every participant hopes to be the hero, much like receiver Markel Boston did with his eventual 43-yard, game-winning touchdown reception that pushed the Indians over the top last season.
Snapping Newnan’s eight-game winning streak in the series was much the grind that it expects to be again on Friday. A final missed Cougar field-goal attempt in the waning seconds enabled East Coweta to notch its first win over Newnan since 2002 as well as the first for Wade since his promotion to head coach in 2007.
The schools have swapped the last two victories by a combined five-point margin. Wade doesn’t see that trend changing anytime soon.
“This game ... it’s a little different. It’ll put a lot of cotton in your mouth. They’ll be times you’ll feel like it’s hard to get a breath,” Wade said. “But that’s what this game’s about. “
The Indians have put together three wins over a span of four region games since going 1-4 over a difficult non-region schedule with a lineup that featured nine new starters on offense and 10 — including Gay — that were new faces on defense.
“It was real hard in the beginning,” Gay said. “But I think everybody has come together as a team. Early in the year, everybody wasn’t cooperating. It’s a lot of people’s first year playing varsity. We just have to stay focused and do what we do.”
What East Coweta’s been doing on offense of late is moving the football. Last week’s win at Douglas County featured a 308-yard effort from quarterback Bryce Gemmel, who threw for three touchdowns and an interception while hitting 18 of 28 attempts. Along with Gay’s effort, three other Indian receivers scored while senior Dee Godfrey added another 100-yard rushing effort.
Godfrey scored twice on 25 attempts for 137 yards as the Indians racked up a total of 542 on offense with 28 first downs.
“That’s a credit to our offensive coaches, guys like Coach [Tom Gochenour], coach [J.R.] Revere, Coach Roc [Coleman],” Wade said. “It’s not like the effort hasn’t been there. We’ve gotten better in a lot of areas, but we’ve got a long ways to go.
Wade credits a much smaller group of seniors than last year’s 32 upperclassmen with helping the group right themselves after going 0-4 in September.
After being outscored 88-20 over three straight losses to opponents with a combined record of 23-5, East Coweta has gone 3-2 and hasn’t lost a game by more than two scores.
“It’s been a different year. When you go through some of that adversity, you find your leaders too. Both Dee and Nigel have stepped up and done a great job as senior leaders,” said Wade, who wasn’t disappointed in what Newnan head coach Mike McDonald had told him when learning Gay was moving to East Coweta’s district. “Mike told me, ‘You’re getting a good one in Nigel.’”
A week after jumping out to a 31-14 lead over Douglas County, the Indians may have to work even harder to grab the upperhand against a Newnan defense that, despite some rough waters, has kept the Cougars in games all season. While posting a 5-1 record over a six-game span, a unit led by Newnan senior safety Tray Matthews and junior linebacker Tonaris Portress has kept all but one opponent to under a 16-point effort.
“They’re coming everywhere too, from all over the place,” said Wade of a Cougar defense that had 17 hurries and seven tackles for loss in a 24-0 shutout of Westlake last Friday. “They do a good job with that. They had to move some guys around, but it’s ‘user-friendly,’ but it’s an attacking defense. Ours is a more of a recognize and assignment ‘sic-em.’ Just a little different style. Our style’s been more the violatile style.”
East Coweta’s defense has been hit or miss — pun intended — this season. Last week the Indians didn’t give up a first down to Douglas County before halftime but let the Tigers break free for a pair of 80-yard touchdown runs. Senior quarterback Ellis Richardson then led a second-half comeback that fell six yards short of the end zone when time finally ran out following three snaps in the final five seconds of the game.
“I told them afterwards that we made three stops in a row to end the game. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s a win and that’s what counts,” Wade said.
Wade has seen the Cougars on film nearly every week while following Newnan’s opponents in the 3-AAAAAA schedule this season. In addition to running backs Quinton Dix and J.K. Britt providing power and flash out of the backfield, respectively, Newnan picked up a two-touchdown effort from sophomore Kelvin Khayyam last week against Westlake that included a 60-yard touchdown run.
“You’ve got to beat them to the punch. If we can beat them to the punch and not let them run all over us. That Dix kid, he’s huge. He is a hard runner. They’ve got speed with a good bit of size,” Wade said, while adding of sophomore first-year quarterback Bailey Bryant, “he’s done a good job for them as well. He makes real good decisions and does a good job running that offense.”
Matthews and senior Traon Moss have been Newnan’s top receivers to go with Britt, who caught a touchdown pass last week, out of the backfield.
“Long plays have really hurt us throughout the year,” Wade said. “We have to know where those guys are at all times.”