After months of uncertainty — brought on by the coronavirus pandemic — that included a canceled spring practice, a restrained summer program, the scrapping of preseason scrimmages and a two-week delay to the start of the season — all systems appear to be a go as the Georgia High School Association is set to begin its 2020 season.
And in Barrow County, the year is beginning with a bang as Winder-Barrow and Apalachee will meet in the 17th installment of the “Battle of Barrow” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at R. Harold Harrison Stadium.
“I know both schools’ fans are going to be enthused to see their teams back in action,” said Winder-Barrow coach Ed Dudley, who is entering his third season with the Bulldoggs. “It seems like a long time coming. Normally by this time of year, we’ve got scrimmages and one or two regular-season games under our belts, so everyone is chomping at the bit here to get back in action.”
Winder-Barrow enters Friday’s game with a 9-7 edge in the all-time “Battle of Barrow” series, having won last year’s contest 24-19 at W. Clair Harris Stadium. It will be just the third time the two schools have opened the season against each other and the first since 2007. It’s also the first time since 2007 the Bulldoggs and Wildcats haven’t been members of the same region as Apalachee has moved down to Class 5A.
But just because the game won’t have future playoff implications isn’t likely to take away from the intensity of it. With seating-capacity limits in place due to the pandemic — social distancing and mask-wearing will be required for spectators — tickets for the matchup had already sold out by the end of last week.
And like Dudley, Apalachee head coach Tony Lotti, also in his third season, is ready to see the Friday night lights come on, especially amid the day-to-day uncertainty brought on by the public health crisis that has proven to be a constant wrinkle in everyday life for Americans the last six months. And he's more than cognizant that things remain in a day-to-day state.
“We’re still praying every day it happens,” Lotti said earlier this week. “We will have been practicing for about six weeks by the time we line up and play, so the kids are just anxious to see somebody else for a change.”
Friday’s game brings an additional element of uncertainty in that neither team has scrimmage film to go by to evaluate fully what their opponent will bring to the table. But also, neither coach has seen the 2020 version of his team in action against another squad.
“It’s real hard to prepare for someone you don’t know much about, but you also get a first real look at what you have, so it’s going to be a learning lesson all the way around,” Lotti said.
“It’s a very old-school, very old-timey way of preparing for game one,” Dudley added. “We’ve been working on it from a standpoint of what we think they’re going to try to do based on previous years. And for us, we’ve got to roll with who we think are going to play well and see what happens, and we’ll have to prepare to coach on the fly in a lot of ways this week.”
The teams on paper are similar in that both return a healthy amount of experienced players but are also having to replace significant offensive and defensive production from graduated seniors.
Winder-Barrow dual-threat quarterback Jhaydon Sullivan (1,441 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, along with 724 rushing yards and 13 scores on the ground) has moved on to Albany State, and the Bulldoggs will turn to junior Trevor Summerfield to try to fill those shoes as best he can. Sophomore Conyer Smith also has had a solid preseason camp, Dudley said.
In his full transition to the varsity level, Summerfield should get some assistance from an offensive line that returns all five starters and a backfield that brings back senior J.C. Green (893 rushing yards and nine touchdowns as a junior) along with senior Chandler Maxwell and sophomore Aidan Thompson.
“We’ve got to do a good job of protecting Trevor up front, and I feel good about where we’re at,” Dudley said. “From what we’ve seen in the past, we’ll expect Apalachee to run odd and multiple fronts and try to get a lot of pressure on our young quarterback. I think if you talk to the Apalachee coaches and fans, they’ll tell you they hang their hat on their defense, and it’s been a good group for them the last couple years.”
“They’ve got a lot of talent over there up front and in the backfield,” Lotti said of the Bulldoggs. “Any time you’ve got a new quarterback, you expect a team to try to build their confidence up early, so we’ll expect some short and quick routes, and hopefully we can keep them from moving the ball a whole lot. I saw (Summerfield) at the JV level, and he’s a talented kid. Coach Dudley is an accomplished, seasoned head coach, so I know he’ll have them ready.”
On the flip side, Apalachee is also having to replace some key offensive production while players with previous varsity experience will be expected to take on larger roles.
After splitting time at quarterback with AJ Forbing as a sophomore and seeing some time last year before being limited by an injury, senior Todd Jones takes over the reins full-time following Forbing’s graduation. Meanwhile, senior Tauheed Ferguson is back after being sidelined his entire junior season with an ACL injury and will lead a stable of running backs seeking to fill the void left by the departure of Shaan Cook (907 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, along with three receiving touchdowns in his final year with the Wildcats).
Apalachee also returns some starters on the offensive line, which will try to hold at bay a Bulldogg defense led by senior defensive end and Florida Atlantic commit Jacob Merrifield.
“The kid’s really talented, and he’s had another year to get even bigger and stronger,” Lotti said of Merrifield. “The big thing for us is that we’ve got to try to slow them down on some of their angles to the ball. We have confidence in Todd and what he brings to the table. The big thing for him is not trying to do too much and being able to distribute the ball to a few different people that will hopefully keep them a little off-balance.”
Meanwhile, Dudley, who is confident in the veteran leadership and experience throughout the Bulldoggs’ linebacker corps and secondary, hopes to see an unsettled situation up front aside from Merrifield begin to crystallize with a committee of players contributing.
“When you’re facing a wing-T team, you’re always trying to limit them because you never truly stop them,” he said. “They get their yards, and a lot of times they get their points. It’s a well-run, pistol-style wing-T, and we’ve got to be ready for all the various wrinkles they’ve thrown in the last couple years. And our defense has been working very hard to get ready.”
Ultimately, both coaches agreed the game is likely to come down to who can avoid the costly mistakes — including in the kicking game, which was the deciding factor in the last two meetings between the Bulldoggs and Wildcats.
“Cutting out the turnovers, penalties and self-inflicted wounds is always a big part of it, especially in week one,” Dudley said.
“You don’t want to put yourself in a hole early,” Lotti said. “That’s important for us if we’re going to try to stay with them. At the end of the day, you’re going to have two class programs in Barrow County go out there and compete and do things the right way.
“What makes this year unique is we don’t have the information we normally would on a week one opponent, but you go out there and prepare as best you can and, when it comes time to guess, hope you guess right.”