For most rebuilding high school football programs, the process doesn’t get completed overnight, and that’s been the case for Apalachee, which has been more competitive and made marked strides in three seasons under Tony Lotti, but hasn’t always seen that improvement translate to favorable results on the scoreboard.
The Wildcats are 8-22 over the last three seasons and are coming off a frustrating 2-8 finish in 2020 — four of those losses by two touchdowns or less — where devastating injuries, roster battles with COVID-19 and self-inflicted wounds in key spots of close games derailed their hopes of snapping a decade-long run without a postseason appearance.
Lotti turned a struggling West Hall program into a winner, and there is still hope and confidence that he can do the same at Apalachee — and optimism that this could be the year when the Wildcats find themselves back in the state playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Apalachee’s senior class this season is the first to go all four years under Lotti, and the Wildcats return a bundle of veteran talent, and depth, on both lines of scrimmage — along with a handful of experienced players at the offensive skill positions and in the secondary and a talented kicking specialist in senior Brody Ham.
“I feel pretty good about this season, and I like this group coming back,” Lotti said. “They worked really hard this offseason and all summer and are jelling together well. That’s always a big piece of the puzzle. They’re doing a good job staying with that team concept.
“Last year, it seemed like we just couldn’t get going, but I like the energy of this group.”
If Apalachee does get over the hump this year, the Wildcats will likely able to point toward the lines of scrimmage as a key reason why. Senior Elijah Harris, an all-region first-teamer in GHSA 8-AAAAA last year, returns to anchor the offensive line at left tackle, while junior Peyton Stanfield and senior Ethan Padinor are among those returning to the unit. Those players will also contribute to a defensive line that returns a pair of defensive ends in senior Joseph Bentley and junior Tyler Ferro, who had a breakout sophomore season. Junior Jahvon Wells and senior Jordan Shaw should also provide a strong presence on the defensive interior and improve upon Apalachee’s overall physicality, Lotti said.
“That was one of the reasons we felt scrimmaging an opponent like Commerce was so important,” Lotti said, referencing the Wildcats’ Aug. 6 preseason game against the Tigers that ended in a 14-14 tie. “Commerce is such a strong program, so I was really wanting to see if we’ve improved in that area of being physical and tough, and I think we have. We held our own there.”
The veteran offensive line for the Wildcats should help the team ease in a pair of new quarterbacks who are vying to take over for the graduated Todd Jones. Sophomore Howard Holloway emerged as perhaps the frontrunner in the spring and over the course of the summer, but senior Isaiah Skinner will also continue to get reps behind center.
“They both bring different things to the table,” Lotti said. “Isaiah is more elusive and more of a runner, and I really like the way (Holloway) leads the offense out there.”
Either quarterback will have a few go-to weapons at their disposal — chief among them senior running back Colby Sikes, who returns following a strong junior campaign where he ran for 503 yards at 7.9 yards a carry and four touchdowns in nine games. He also tied for the team lead in receptions with 26 and caught three touchdown passes and added a kickoff return for a score.
Sikes will again be used out wide some along with senior returners Edwin Ellis and Ethan Middlebrooks, but his primary role likely will be leading a stable of running backs that also includes sophomore Prince Tate, who showed some flashes of promise as a freshman, and seniors Deven White and Jacob McCluskey among others.
Sikes and Ellis are also returning in the Apalachee secondary, while senior linebacker Jordan Wilson is another key cog back on defense.
With optimism abound for the Wildcats, Lotti, his staff and his players know they can go a long way by getting out of their own way at times in games. They saw another example of that in the Commerce scrimmage, where multiple fumbles disrupted would-be scoring drives.
“That’s the thing we’ve been talking about,” Lotti said last week after dissecting the scrimmage film and getting the Wildcats down the path of preparing for their season opener at cross-county rival Winder-Barrow on Friday, Aug. 20. “We’ve got to be able to eliminate those kinds of things to compete with the team’s we’re going to be facing. I feel like when we do that, we’re a pretty good football team.
“I think we’ve obviously come a long way, but we can’t keep being our own worst enemy.”
And if any group can get Apalachee can clear those hurdles remaining between it and a return to the postseason, Lotti said, this year’s senior class, which has been with him since he arrived on campus, is as good a place to start as any.
“They’re hungry,” he said. “They’ve put in a lot of hard work and they’re wanting to see the fruits of their labor.”
APALACHEE 2021 SCHEDULE
Aug. 20 — at Winder-Barrow, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 27 — at Habersham Central, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 3 — vs. Madison County, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 10 — Open
Sept. 17 — at Clarke Central, 7:30 p.m.*
Sept. 24 — vs. Eastside, 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 1 — at Greenbrier, 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 8 — Open
Oct. 15 — vs. Johnson, 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 22 — vs. Walnut Grove, 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 29 — at Loganville, 7:30 p.m.*
Nov. 5 — vs. Jackson County, 7:30 p.m.*
*-denotes region game