Lotti Apalachee

Apalachee coach Tony Lotti and the Wildcats will host Eastside at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, in another GHSA Region 8-AAAAA battle. 

Apalachee walked out of Billy Henderson Stadium in Athens last week on the short end of the scoreboard following its 31-17 loss to Clarke Central in its GHSA Region 8-AAAAA opener, but the final tally perhaps didn’t do the down-to-the-wire nature of the contest full justice.

In fact, Wildcats head coach Tony Lotti and his staff and players came away both incensed at a couple of controversial calls in critical spots — which they felt cost them a real chance at pulling off the upset — but also encouraged by their overall performance against the overwhelmingly favored defending region champions who have been billed as a top contender to take home the title again.

The Wildcats can’t much afford to look backward this week, as they get set to host Eastside, widely considered the other Region 8 favorite, in a big game Friday night, Sept. 24, at R. Harold Harrison Stadium.

“I felt like we did a better job overall of executing, playing together and just playing extremely hard,” Lotti said of the loss at Clarke Central, yet another in a long line of games over the last four seasons where the Wildcats have been neck-and-neck with an opponent but lost when one or two key plays didn’t swing their way.

Apalachee (0-4, 0-1 region) led 17-10 at halftime before the Gladiators tied the game in the third quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run — a play during which Clarke Central’s quarterback appeared to cross the line of scrimmage before stepping back behind it and getting off an overhanded option pitch to a receiver, who took it the distance. Then, trailing 24-17 with less than two minutes left and punting from deep in their own end zone, the Wildcats drew a roughing the kicker call on a punt attempt and thought they had recovered a loose ball when the punt appeared to touch the Clarke Central returner, setting off a mad scramble for the ball. Officials, though, ruled that the ball had not touched a Gladiator, costing Apalachee about 40 yards of field position. A loose ball on an errant backward pass by the Wildcats with under a minute to go was then scooped up by Clarke Central and returned for a touchdown to seal the Gladiators’ victory.

Minus that last snafu, “it’s probably the best we’ve played since I’ve gotten here (in 2018), considering who we were playing,” Lotti said. “No matter what seemed to get thrown at us, we just kept battling back. It was a very physical game on both sides of the ball, and I felt like our kids grew up a little bit. And I believe the kids felt that way, too. Now it’s about how we prepare so we don’t take a backward step. Our opponents haven’t been easy so far, and now we’ve got another powerhouse coming in."

Eastside, a state quarterfinal team last fall that has gotten off to another strong start this year, enters Friday’s matchup at 3-1 overall and is coming off a 65-0 blasting of Johnson-Gainesville in its region opener last week. The Eagles led 51-0 at halftime over the Knights and rolled up 481 rushing yards, including 181 and two touchdowns on just nine carries from talented senior running back Dallas Johnson, who has 687 yards on the ground at 8.6 yards a carry and eight touchdowns through four games.

Johnson, a senior with multiple Division I offers, and his fellow backs run behind a big offensive line that features 6-foot-5, 325-pound senior guard and two-way starter Jalen Farmer, who has committed to Florida. The Eagles also boast another big D-I prospect in junior inside linebacker Jean Claude Joseph III, who has collected offers so far from Michigan, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Maryland among others.

“They’ve got dudes, as we call them, all across the board,” Lotti said. “And we’ve got to come ready and stay focused.”

Meanwhile, Apalachee will hope to build off the continued improvement Lotti has seen from the offense the last two games. The Wildcats tallied over 200 yards rushing last week before a 10-yard loss on a fumble and the yardage lost on the lateral that went for the scoop-and-score by Clarke Central bumped them back down. Senior Jeff Roberts had a breakout game with 108 yards on 11 carries, including a 77-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage, and has shown he can provide the Wildcats with a third weapon in the backfield to go along with fellow senior Colby Sikes and sophomore Prince Tate.

“We saw some really good things on offense before Clarke Central made some great adjustments in the second half,” Lotti said. “But then our defense stepped up and kept us in it. We were really discouraged by how the game ended, but we’re trying to play the cards we’re dealt. We know we’re going to have our hands full again with Eastside and that they’re a team that’s going to be in contention to go deep in the state playoffs. If they’re gracious enough to give us something, we’ve got to cash in. We did a much better job of staying out of our own way, and we’ve got to continue to stay fundamentally sound and fight on.

“Because we’re so close.”

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