Published Friday, October 12, 2012
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
Memo to Stratford Academy’s football team tonight: This is not the same Trinity Christian lineup you scored a season-high 62 points against last year.
Memo to Trinity Christian: Um, this is still Stratford Academy. So buckle those chinstraps after taking the long trip to Macon.
Even through the progress made over five non-region games so far, the Lions will face another typically sound Stratford team that despite losing as many games so far as it did all of last season, hadn’t lost much of its step at 3-2 overall.
In their sixth year since Rodney Collins returned to the school he had previously coached from 1988-2002, the Eagles are coming off a trip to last year’s Class AAA finals and have lost a pair of games to the classifications top-two ranked teams — Deerfield Windsor and Westfield — who have a combined record of 10-1.
“They’re fundamentally sound. Just a well-coached team,” Trinity Christian head coach Chris Hanson said of Stratford. “We’ve got to come ready to play. And we have to play good, sound football.”
It’s what Stratford has done much of the year so far, capped off with last week’s 42-14 thrashing of Edmund Burke, last year’s Class AA state runner-up. Six players scored touchdowns in a game that was over at halftime with the Eagles ahead comfortably 35-6.
Last week,quarterback John Mitchell combined for 146 yards of offense while going 5 of 9 passing for 95 yards and a touchdown. The 6-0, 150-pound senior has thrown for 412 yards and five touchdowns to just one interception this year.
The Eagles remain a run-first offense, however, using not only Mitchell but their depth in the backfield. Running backs Ken Spears Jr, Austin Simmons and Greer Smith — Stratford’s leading tackler — have combined for 768 yards and six touchdowns led by Simmons’ 293.
Add that to Mitchell’s 147 yards and two scores and Trinity’s much-improved defense that has held opposing offenses in check all season has another challenge ahead tonight.
The Lions are coming off arguably its best performance of the season in a dominant 37-19 win over Piedmont Academy that included a team-high nine tackles by sophomore Diego Henriquez, who is among a host of Trinity players that will play a bigger role tonight than in last year’s 62-28 loss to Stratford.
A year after allowing at least 28 points in all eight losses in 2011, the Lions defense has made tremendous improvement. Last week at least 16 players registered at least one tackle and the unit has given up four offensive scores in its four contested games.
The final five games — all in Region 2-AAA play — will determine the level of that improvement following last year’s 2-8 record.
“We have five opportunities left. We have to go out and find a way to take advantage of them,” Hanson said. “I think our players have a good understanding now of this region. They don’t want things to end up like last year. We know the next five games are more important than the first five games.”
Trinity’s losses have come in games where the Lions either didn’t take advantage of opportunities, like a tough 14-6 loss to unbeaten John Milledge (6-0), or in ones where they’ve been haunted by their own mistakes, having given Flint River 14 second-half points off two turnovers in a 20-9 defeat on Sept. 21.
“I think those first five games have opened our kids’ eyes,” Hanson said. “We know if we come ready to play we have a good chance to compete.”
Trinity equally hopes to keep its running game — which finished with 376 yards against Piedmont — going at full speed. Senior transfer Jay Warner gave the Lions a four-touchdown effort two weeks after fullback Drew Gibson achieved the same accomplishment in a win over Covenant Christian.
Warner finished with the bulk of the total, toting the ball 30 times for 316 yards. Gibson added 33 on six carries and quarterback Connor Adams added 27 and a touchdown on nine touches while also getting a boost up front.
“I thought our offensive line played a major role,” said Hanson, whose team is coming off a bye week. “I’m the type where I’d always rather be playing a game, but it gave us as a coaching staff a chance to evaluate and concentrate on those things we needed to improve on. It was good to go into the break with some momentum.”
The Lions now have a chance to continue it tonight.