After its first six games of the season were filled mostly with frustration, Apalachee finally had a chance to smile Friday, Oct. 30, as the Wildcats dominated from start to finish and routed Johnson 45-0 in Gainesville to earn their first victory of the season.
Head coach Tony Lotti is hopeful the rout will serve as a springboard for the Wildcats, who enter the final three weeks of the season in seventh place in the GHSA Region 8-AAAAA standings at 1-3 in region play, but are just a game back of four teams that are tied at 2-2, including three that they’ve yet to face.
That final stretch and push to snap an 11-year postseason drought starts Friday, Nov. 6, when they make the trip to Walnut Grove to face a Warrior team they’ve beaten in each of the last two seasons and three out of the last four.
“They’re going to be excited to play us; that’s for sure,” Lotti said Monday of Walnut Grove. “Our motto has been to take things one game at a time, but we also haven’t shied away from painting the big picture for our kids and where we sit right now. It’s important for us to be able to build on what we showed last week, so we’re looking for a good week out of our team. They understand what’s at stake and what we’ve got a chance to do, but it starts with having a laser focus on what’s right in front of you.”
In the win over Johnson, Apalachee scored on all but the last of its eight possessions on the night and built a 38-0 halftime lead, initiating a running clock in the second half.
The Wildcats (1-6 overall) rolled up 480 yards of offense — 377 on the ground — and limited the Knights (0-8, 0-5) to 99 total yards and just four first downs and came up with a pair of interceptions on the defensive end.
About the only significant highlight of the night for Johnson came on the opening kickoff when the Knights recovered an onside kick at the Apalachee 49. But after a three-and-out, the Wildcats quickly traveled 84 yards on just five plays with Jacob McCluskey’s 12-yard touchdown run putting his team in front early.
Apalachee needed just one snap on its second possession of the game as Colby Sikes weaved in and out of traffic for a 59-yard touchdown run. Sikes then got open and caught a pass in the flat from Todd Jones for a 26-yard touchdown two plays into the Wildcats’ next drive to make it 21-0 with 1:45 left in the first quarter.
Jakobe Hudson and Isaiah Starks added touchdown runs of 18 and 28 yards, respectively, in the second quarter, and Brody Ham booted a 33-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. Hudson tacked on one more touchdown run — from seven yards out — late in the third quarter.
Starks led the Wildcats in rushing with 110 yards on just six carries and had a touchdown. Sikes finished with 90 yards on the ground on just five carries with a touchdown and had two receptions for 56 yards and a score. McCluskey finished with 64 yards on five carries and a touchdown; Hudson had 24 yards on three carries with the two scores; Channin Daniels had four carries for 34 yards; and Prince Tate finished with 29 yards on two touches. Jones was 6-of-7 passing for 103 yards and a touchdown.
“It was nice. We finally started to click and guys were doing what they were supposed to do,” Lotti said. “Between injuries and illness and juggling lots of things around, it was just great to see things go the way we would have liked. I was pleased with our attitude going into the game. We had a great week of preparation and it showed.”
And Lotti knows the Wildcats will need another solid week of preparation in order to get a win on the road against Walnut Grove. The Warriors (3-4) have had an up-and-down year and are coming off a 30-7 home loss against Clarke Central on Oct. 23. But they’ve also had an extra week to get back on track and prepare for the key showdown with Apalachee.
Senior quarterback Evan Welborn has been Walnut Grove’s top offensive player, throwing for 779 yards and seven touchdowns against just one interception while completing 72 percent of his passes. Sophomore running back Chad Walden (642 rushing yards, 6.6 yards a carry, seven touchdowns) presents another threat, and Lotti said containing the Warriors’ team speed will be a key task for his defense.
“They’re really good upfront, too, and they are way improved on both sides from last year,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to stop the run and contain the quarterback because he can make a lot of things happen. He’s pretty elusive and can find a guy to get it to if they get open.
“This region is kind of jammed up in the middle right now, and a lot of these games in the final weeks are going to come down to who shows up ready to play and who can avoid the big mistakes. We feel like we’re going to have a good game plan going in, but it’s going to be really important that we execute it.”
POSTPONEMENT SHAKES UP BULLDOGGS’ SCHEDULE
Dating back to the summer, when it was still very much up in the air whether there would even be a high school football season, Winder-Barrow coach Ed Dudley has known his team would need to be able to adjust on the fly in a year of uncertainty.
Their latest challenge came late last week when a Region 8-AAAAAA game at Central Gwinnett they’d spend all week preparing for was postponed due to multiple Central Gwinnett players reportedly testing positive for COVID-19. It was the second time this season that the Bulldoggs had a game canceled or postponed for coronavirus-related reasons concerning an opponent.
The Central Gwinnett game will now be made up Monday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m. in Lawrenceville, but the schedule change now creates a situation where the Bulldoggs (2-4, 1-2 region) will play three games in a nine-day span, starting with a home non-region contest against Salem at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5. The Salem game was booked last month and replaced the canceled game from September against Cedar Shoals, and despite the shakeup, the Bulldoggs are moving forward with it. After the Monday night game, the Bulldoggs will be on an expedited schedule to get ready for a massive Nov. 13 test at Buford, the defending Class 5A champion and current No. 2 team in 6A.
“When we first started out in the preseason, I think the expectation was we would try to at least get some games in during COVID and at least give our seniors a chance to play,” Dudley said. “Now, as we’ve been able to adapt, we’ve been able to get games in. We’re still going, and we’ve got to continue to be flexible and grateful for the opportunity to play this fall.
“This upcoming stretch of games is going to really put our training and conditioning to the test. We’ve got to make sure our heavy-contact days are the three game days, and in between we’re going to be doing light practices with a good bit of film work and walk-throughs.”
Salem (1-2) has in many ways been behind the 8-ball all season following the Rockdale County School System’s decision in August to postpone fall sports until October. And in a small sample size of three games, the Seminoles have been a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, suffering 53-0 and 69-0 losses to Coffee and Miller Grove, with a 36-2 win over Rockdale County sandwiched in between.
“We’re just looking forward to the chance to play and we’re treating this like any other game,” Dudley said. “Watching them on film, they’re very athletic on defense and they’ve got a great sophomore quarterback on offense. We want to be able to get our style of play going, run the ball effectively and play strong defense. When you look at the quick turnaround in between games, if there’s a silver lining, it’s that we had already put together the Central Gwinnett game plan and they are very similar schematically to Salem. It’s two spread offenses with a 4-2-5 defense so there’s a lot of carryover there.
“And I feel like we’re in pretty good shape health-wise right now. The few extra days off helped us get back a lot closer to 100 percent, so we’re set and ready to go.”
KNIGHTS PREPARE TO HOST JUGGERNAUT JOHN MILLEDGE
Bethlehem Christian Academy is coming off its own stretch of three games in eight days, which wrapped up last Friday with a 27-21 loss at Thomas Jefferson Academy in Louisville, but the Knights’ most critical stretch of the year now looms ahead as they get set to open their three-game GISA Region 4-AAA slate to close out the regular season.
How well the Knights (2-5) do in those three games will largely determine whether they make it into the eight-team state tournament that will be determined by a power-ranking evaluation of the 12 teams in Class AAA. And right off the bat to begin the region schedule, the Knights will face by far their toughest test to this point of the season when they host perennial powerhouse John Milledge Academy at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The Trojans (5-0) are the defending state champions, have won two state titles in the last four years, and are winners of 18 straight and 30 of their last 31. John Milledge is Lane’s alma mater, and he also coached there from 1995-99, winning two region titles and leading his team to four quarterfinal appearances and a pair of semifinal appearances.
The Trojans, who will bring a roster roughly double the size of the Knights’ to town, have been nothing short of dominant over the past decade, going 106-14 to this point under 10th-year head coach J.T. Wall, the former University of Georgia standout fullback and a former player of Lane’s at JMA. The trend has continued this fall as they’ve averaged 45.2 points over their first five outings behind a power running game led by senior Kelvin Jackson (484 rushing yards, 7.3 yards a carry and five touchdowns) and a pair of senior quarterbacks in Grayson Hopkins and Patrick Mcdonel, who are capable of inflicting damage on opposing defense in different ways.
Not to be outdone, the John Milledge defense, led by coordinator Justin Mills (another of Lane’s former players) has been equally impressive with only 20 points allowed and has posted three consecutive shutouts entering Friday.
“When you look at it, John Milledge and our program are at two different stages of development right now,” Lane said. “John Milledge is well-established, and we are actively trying to develop our program to set it up for more success down the road, and our kids have been doing a really great job of buying into that. I’m very proud of those guys and what they’ve been able to do. They’re a first-class program and they are the standard now that everybody is trying to chase and measure themselves by.
“If you’re a football person, you appreciate what they’ve been able to accomplish. But as an opposing coach, you want to prepare your kids the best you can prepare them and see how you can match up.”
Lane has continued to see positive developments from his team and said he felt like the Knights “grew up an awful lot” during their recent three-game stretch.
After a 34-7 loss to Loganville Christian on Oct. 23, the Knights bounced back with authority on Oct. 27, routing Notre Dame Academy 69-0 in Duluth. Freshman Joshua Adams led the Knights' offensive explosion, carrying the ball 10 times for 130 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns. Fellow freshmen Johnny Dickinson and Elijah Goddard both scored rushing touchdowns, while senior quarterback Ethan Guthas and senior running back Chad Norwood added scores on the ground.
Guthas completed both passes he attempted on the afternoon for 45 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown to junior Luke Sheats. Sheats also returned an interception for a touchdown — one of two pick-sixes on the afternoon for the Knights with sophomore Timothy Doolittle accounting for the other.
The Knights nearly pulled off a come-from-behind win at Thomas Jefferson but couldn’t overcome a 21-0 halftime deficit and 361 rushing yards from the Jaguars’ triple-option attack, falling 27-21.
Guthas led BCA offensively on Friday, completing 10 of 14 passes for 119 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Norwood had 48 yards on seven carries, caught a touchdown pass from Guthas and also blocked a punt that Dickinson recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Junior Ty Whiting also had a touchdown reception.
“This has been an unusual year where we’ve had to adapt to different situations, and I think our kids have really done a good job of that,” Lane said. “That Loganville Christian game was the only one we were truly able to prepare for, and I think that wound up hurting us some against Thomas Jefferson. They gave us some problems, then we made some halftime adjustments and played better in all phases of the game. We had an opportunity at the end of the night to recover an onside kick and try to win the game, but we just weren’t able to. It’s just a process. We’re developing a culture and laying a foundation. The kids have been amazing through every circumstance they’ve encountered and I can’t say anything but positive things about them.
“I think we are making good progress every week; it’s just a matter of being a little bit more consistent and more fundamentally sound in what we do. If we’re able to keep doing that, we will have success.”