Published Friday, November 23, 2012
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
It had been a decade since Kevin Prisant last took the field for a football practice on Thanksgiving morning. On Thursday, his Heritage School squad got a chance to experience the same thing for the first time in their playing careers.
“It was exactly ten years ago this week,” he said, looking back. “We were practicing on Thanksgiving getting ready to play in the state championship game.”
Prisant played defensive back for Deerfield-Windsor on its 2002 title winner, which happened to hold off Westfield School, 24-7 en route to the Albany school’s first championship under head coach Allen Lowe.
Tonight, Westfield also stands in Heritage School's path to what the Hawks may feel is their year after earning the school’s first region title, home playoff game, and postseason victory over the span of the last two weeks.
“We’ve tried to stay to the same routine this week. I’ve told all the moms, wake them up and don’t let them sleep too much. That way their bodies are on the same schedule,” Prisant said. “Other than practicing Thanksgiving morning, we’ll go through our regular pregame [today] before the game. We’ve got a good group of seniors. I think they understand what it all means to them.”
No doubt, Westfield and longtime head coach Ronnie Jones, have to also feel like they’re equally due. During Jones’ 20 seasons with the Hornets, the program has reached the Final Four an impressive 13 times and have advanced to four championship games, losing in each finals appearance.
“They are so fundamentally sound on offense and defense,” Prisant said of Westfield. “We’re new to this (point of the season). They’re not. They’ve been here time and time again. Coach Jones has done a tremendous job. That’s what we strive for as a program to have that kind of tradition.”
Either way, the destinies of two 10-1 football teams are about to cross paths tonight at The Heritage School.
“I don’t think anything’s going to be held back by either team,” said Trinity Christian head coach Chris Hanson, whose Lions battled both teams over consecutive weeks in close games to close the season. “I expect it to be a real close game.”
In a game between two equally talented teams with ball-control offenses, this one could still be over in a hurry, even if the winner isn’t decided until the closing seconds.
It pits Westfield’s methodical wing-T attack against Heritage’s, which features more of the option used by Prisant’s beloved Georgia Southern offense having previously worked as an assistant at nearby Bulloch Academy.
The differences, though, come among the focal points of their execution. The Hornets use a variety of runners led by quarterback Evan Williams and tailback Tom Tuggle to move the ball. Williams leads the team with 433 yards and 11 touchdowns and Tuggle has 418 to go with a score.
Three other Westfield running backs — Drew McCrory, Stuart Smith and Dustin Hall — have each carried the ball more than 35 times in what has been an even distribution among the formation’s three-man backfield.
Williams has equally been accurate, hitting 62 of 129 pass attempts for 999 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions.
“They run the Wing-T like you’re supposed to do it,” Prisant said. “The thing about them is they don’t have that one guy to zone in on. They have seven guys who can run the football. Their line is very athletic and it has to be with all the pulling they do.”
The Hawks have struggled, somewhat, in stopping their last three opponents. They allowed 38 points in the team’s only loss to Tattnall, then gave up two quick scores while falling behind to Trinity before rallying back. With victory well in hand last week, though, they continuously let Pinewood creep back to within striking distance in a two-possession game for most of four quarters.
Prisant feels his defense simply needs to trust its instincts — and each other — to make plays.
“If we go out there and do our own thing individually it’s going to be a long night,” Prisant said. “They weren’t trusting each other to get their reads and execute. We’re not good enough to be out there trying to make plays on our own.”
As much as Heritage has improved its depth at the skill positions, the focus of any Hawks opponent remains the same. Which is finding a way to stop senior tailback Candler Rich from finding the end zone.
So far, the Hornets — led by linebacker Dustin Hall (6-0, 190) and defensive tackle Ty Forrester (6-2, 240) — haven’t given up much ground. In its 10 wins, Westfield has only allowed three touchdowns just once and that came in mid-September. Since their only loss, the Hornets have given up 34 points in four games while allowing just 10 on average for the season.
Not many offenses, however, boast a threat like Heritage’s Rich, who has eclipsed 5,000-yards rushing for his career.
The Hawks senior, who enters tonight with 1,544 yards and 19 touchdowns just among carries, scored three times in last week’s 42-27 win over Pinewood Christian, including one on a 72-yard kickoff return.
“Candler’s a great player, but they’ve got other guys that they can hurt you too,” Hanson said. “I’m sure Heritage is working on ways they can get Candler the ball that Westfield hasn’t seen before on film.”
The Hawks have given Westfield plenty to prepare for, especially after three touchdown passes of 70 or more yards the past two weeks. Senior Joe Bonner has spread them out among an 85-yard throw to Rich that turned the tide in Heritage’s victory over Trinity. Last week, Bonner had an 80-yard strike to tight end Tyler Henson to push a 14-0 lead and then connected with receiver Garrett Jones on a 75-yard juggling catch and run to push a 21-7 lead at halftime.
“That’s not something we set out to do,” Prisant said. “Those were all calls we made based on things we saw during the game. The thing we have to do is hold on to the football and be smart.”
The Hawks’ lone loss was a game where it turned the ball over five times to Tattnall and lost by three points. Bonner had three of his five interceptions in the game and any extra possessions by either offense tonight could be the difference.
“We’ve got to win the turnover battle,” said the Heritage coach. “And we have to make good decisions with the football.”
Both lineups also feature sound special teams units. Senior Ben Dudley is averaging 38 yards per punt while Westfield’s specialists include senior punter Wayne O’Neal and senior kicker Landon Beaman.
“It could come down to the team that steps up and makes a play on special teams,” said Hanson, whose 6-5 Lions gave Coweta’s two GISA programs a combined record of 17-6 this season. “I think Coweta’s teams showed that this county is for real this year in this league.”
Tonight’s just another chance for The Heritage School to prove it.