Prep Football Playoffs: Curtain rises on 3rd stage of seasonBy CHRIS GOLTERMANN
There’s three stages to the football season — regardless of level — in which a team’s identity changes.
It starts with the team you hope to be, continues with the team you think you’ve become and ultimately ends with the team that you’re remembered as.
“The third part of the season is the show. That’s what it’s all about,” said Trinity Christian head coach Chris Hanson, whose program enters its first postseason as a GISA school tonight. “Everybody goes back to 0-0.”
Hanson knows a thing or two about the postseason following a 10-year NFL career that ended with the New England Patriots and included an undefeated run to Super Bowl XLII.
“If you can’t get up for this, than you probably shouldn’t be playing football,” said Hanson this week while preparing for tonight’s trip to play 9-1 Westfield in Perry.
For others, the trip has been an annual ritual. Newnan (8-2) hosts Alcovy among a pair of Class AAAAAA first-round games tonight with the Cougars making its seventh straight playoff appearance and fourth consecutive under head coach Mike McDonald.
East Coweta head coach Clint Wade has been along for all 16 of the Indians’ recent streak, the last four as the program’s head coach. Despite finishing the regular season 4-6 with a loss to rival Newnan, East Coweta — like Trinity following its 29-14 loss to rival Heritage School — can begin anew tonight with a trip to play former Region 2-AAAAA rival Newton (5-5).
The Heritage School, meanwhile, hosts a state-playoff game for the first time in its seven-year history after the Hawks captured its initial region championship trophy in varsity football. The school can add to a year of new school records including its nine victories tonight when Heritage hosts Pinewood Christian (5-5) of Bellville.
Northgate knows the feeling, having experienced a Region 3-AAAA title in the GHSA last season. The Vikings return to the postseason under head coach Tommy Walburn, this time as a “underdog” in their first-round Class AAAAA matchup against former region opponent Harris County in Hamilton.
For Northgate, the playoffs began with Saturday’s Region 4-AAAAA play-in game against Mundy’s Mill, knowing a loss would end the season early. Instead, the Vikings clinched the No. 4 seed with a 15-3 victory to set up a showdown with the Tigers.
Harris County (6-4) captured its first region title in over 50 years by upsetting state-ranked Thomas County Central last week following much the same path as Northgate through the first half of the season.
The Tigers began the year 0-4 while the Vikings struggled with injuries during a 2-3 start. Harris nearly lost a fifth straight game before rallying from 16 points down to defeat Douglas County in overtime.
Coming off three straight wins to close the regular season, Northgate has experienced much the same turnaround. A healthy Benton Washington at running back has given the offense an added lift while a Viking defense that’s been steady all year, seems re-energized after allowing 33 points over its last 12 quarters of football.
Trinity and East Coweta also hope to extend seasons on the road while coming off emotional losses to county rivals.
The Lions (6-4) haven’t been to the postseason since their undefeated 8-man championship in the ICSGA, a feat that former rivals Heritage Christian is on the cusp of this Saturday (see related story).
The roster is a mix of contributors from that lineup mixed with new faces including seniors Drew Gibson, Jay Warner and Edwin Rivera — all of whom have made big impacts in their first years in Trinity uniforms. Warner enters tonight with over 1,100-yards rushing while Rivera and Gibson have led the Lions defense along with senior Mark Collier.
Trinity will have to get past an equally deep Westfield lineup that is no stranger to the GISA playoffs. The Hornets have yet to lose a first-round game in their 20 seasons under head coach Ronnie Jones while reaching Game 12 the last three years.
The Indians, meanwhile, try to bounce back from a 21-7 loss at home to rival Newnan while looking to advance to the second round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2007.
East Coweta will need to overpower a big and equally physical Newton lineup that it’s defeated each of the past two years in Region 2-AAAAA play by 15 and 6-point margins. By way of last week’s loss, the Indians finished as the No. 3 seed in 3-AAAAAA while the Rams finished second behind only state-ranked Lovejoy (9-1).
Both teams have lost games to eventual region champions in Lovejoy and Hughes while playing difficult non-region schedules. East Coweta’s first five opponents have a combined record of 33-18 while Newton’s four non-region opponents are currently 32-8.
If last year’s playoffs were an example of how to channel a team’s energy after an emotional loss, the Indians might like their chances. During the first round of the 2011 state playoffs, Newnan traveled to Valdosta and upset a No. 1 seeded region champion in hostile territory.
Tonight, however, the Cougars enjoy home-field advantage against 4-6 Alcovy following an 8-2 run in the regular season. Newnan enters on a three-game win streak having won six of its last seven games.
Defense has been the constant. Outside of a disappointing loss to eventual 3-AAAAAA champion Langston Hughes, the Cougars have held opponents to two scores or less during the stretch. Last week against East Coweta, Newnan capitalized on four Indians turnovers including a pair of interceptions by senior cornerback Rodney Tennie.
The Heritage School equally benefitted from a shutout effort during the final two quarters of its victory over rival Trinity after falling behind 14-8 at halftime. The Hawks hope to continue the trend tonight against 5-5 Pinewood while trying to limit the touches of the Patriots’ two most dangerous players - senior running back Ethan Kumpula and quarterback Dalton Johnson.
Heritage, however, counters with a lineup including 12 seniors led by running back/safety Candler Rich. Held in check by Trinity through most of two quarters, Rich finished with 171 yards and two rushing touchdowns while adding another long touchdown run off a pass from senior quarterback Joe Bonner.
“By no means are we happy with just this,” Hawks head coach Kevin Prisant said after the school captured its first region football trophy in school history. “We haven’t met all our goals yet and I think our players know that.”