The Apalachee football team appears to be starting to click at the ideal time and finds itself right in the thick of the state playoff picture with just two weeks to play in the regular season. And with a win in their upcoming likely home finale Friday, Nov. 13, against Loganville, the Wildcats would go a long way toward breaking their 11-year postseason drought.
Apalachee (2-6, 2-3 GHSA Region 8-AAAAA) picked up a critical road win Friday, Nov. 6, toppling Walnut Grove 19-7 for its second straight victory and moving into a four-way tie for fourth place in the region standings — along with its next two opponents (Loganville and Jackson County) and Walnut Grove.
After a scoreless first quarter Friday, the Wildcats got a 65-yard touchdown pass from Todd Jones to Charlie Hych, a safety and a Brody Ham field goal to take a 12-7 halftime lead and then rode their defense in the second half with Jones adding a 1-yard touchdown plunge in the third quarter.
“We’ve been playing much better,” Apalachee coach Tony Lotti said Monday, Nov. 9, discussing his team’s triumph over the Warriors. “I felt good about our week of preparation and our game plan going in, and our kids went out and executed and played well. But there were also some mistakes we still made. We dropped a couple touchdown passes and had one called back, so we’ve still got some big cleaning up to do. But I was really pleased overall, especially with how physical we played in all three phases of the game.”
While Clarke Central clinched the region title with a win over Loganville last week, Eastside has a firm grasp on the No. 2 and Greenbrier is currently in control of the third spot, it will take the final two weeks of the season to sort out the logjam in the fourth spot. Walnut Grove would likely need to upset Eastside this week to keep its playoff hopes alive, while a Jackson County win over Greenbrier could set up a situation where four teams are vying for the two playoff spots in the final week.
“There’s no doubt, this is a big game (against Loganville),” Lotti said. “But at this point, it’s the same for us as it has been. Our goal is to go 1-0 each week and see what happens.”
Like Apalachee and several other teams in the region, Loganville (3-5, 2-3) has been a hot-and-cold team throughout the year and is coming off a 35-19 last week ago to Clarke Central. But Lotti is well-aware of the explosive playmaking capabilities of the Red Devils’ offense that were on display Oct. 30 in a 47-7 rout of Jackson County. Senior quarterback Tanner Greene threw five touchdown passes in that game and has shown the ability to distribute the ball accurately and effectively to several different players, Lotti said.
“I’ve been real impressed watching him,” Lotti said of Greene. “He gets outside the pocket well, and he’s a threat to run but he also throws a really good ball. And they’ve got two really good running backs that people have had a hard time slowing down, so they’ve got weapons all over the field and we’ve got to be able to handle that.”
Since getting gashed in a 42-27 loss to Greenbrier on Oct. 16 that was followed by an open week, Apalachee’s defense has clamped down in a big way, surrendering less than 100 total yards in a 45-0 shutout at Johnson-Gainesville on Oct. 30 and following that up with last week’s outing in which they gave up only one score. Sophomore defensive back Deondre Moore had a breakout performance with a pair of interceptions and several tackles, while Chase Hunter (three sacks, eight tackles) Marcus Streeter and Tyler Ferro also helped lead the charge.
Defensive coordinator Mike Hancock “and the staff have done a good job of staying with the plan even when they’ve had to keep shuffling pieces between injuries and everything else,” Lotti said. “Every week, it seems like it’s kind of a battle of who we’re going to have available to play where, but those kids do a good job of playing together and they’re executing at the right time. And we need that to continue this week.”
Lotti will also be looking for more big plays on the offensive end, starting with quarterback Todd Jones, who has taken off the last three games and threw for 198 yards and a touchdown on 12-of-20 passing last week, putting him at 1,091 yards for the season.
“He has continued to improve. And while most people don’t expect us to throw it a whole lot, I’ve felt all along we were capable of it and we’ve done it pretty well here lately,” said Lotti, whose team will go up against a stout Loganville defensive line led by Boston College commit Neto Okpala. “They do a good job over there (at Loganville), and it’s going to be important for us to get off to a good start, weather the storms that come, and just play well and execute.
“It’s the same thing it’s been all year. If we can do those things, I feel like we’ve got a chance. If we don’t, then we tend to struggle.”
Kickoff Friday at R. Harold Harrison Stadium is set for 7:30 p.m.
WINDER-BARROW SET TO GO UP AGAINST JUGGERNAUT BUFORD
Winder-Barrow got the job done in the first two legs of a nine-day, three-game stretch with a pair of convincing wins, and now it turns its attention to undoubtedly the biggest challenge.
The Bulldoggs throttled Salem 50-6 in a home non-region game Thursday, Nov. 5, and pitched a 37-0 shutout in a GHSA Region 8-AAAAAA contest at Central Gwinnett on Monday, Nov. 9, to run their winning streak to three games and evened both their overall record at 4-4 and region mark at 2-2.
Coach Ed Dudley’s team is playing its best football of the year, and that’ll be put to the test Friday, Nov. 13, when they visit second-ranked Buford in another key region battle at 7:30 p.m. Buford (6-1, 4-0) is coming off a 38-10 region victory over Lanier last week and has won its last six games since a season-opening 28-14 loss to North Cobb.
The Wolves have been the premier program in Georgia over the last two decades, winning 11 state championships over the last 19 seasons in five different classifications, including the 5A crown last fall before moving up to 6A. They’ve won 16 region titles over the same period, and since their last losing season in 1998, the Wolves are 280-24. And two of those losses were wins that became forfeits for the use of an ineligible player in 2012.
This year’s Buford team has kept the tradition rolling, holding opponents to just 23 points over the last six games and averaging just under 40 points an outing.
“I think we’ve got to go over there and play a little small ball and take the victories where we can,” Dudley said of his team’s plan against Buford, which is currently the top-scoring team in 6A. “We’ve got to be consistent in getting first downs and keeping their offense on the bench, and if you can do that then you try to go win the game in the fourth quarter. Usually, Buford has beaten up on people in the first half, and the game’s over. Lanier did a great job in the first half last week and then had limited success in the second half. The best thing we can do is go play our game. You can’t try to invent something new at this point; we’ve just got to be us and execute what we do well.”
Winder-Barrow has dominated in all phases of the game in its last two outings. After the blowout of Salem, which was highlighted by freshman Tre Gaudlock’s two long touchdown receptions and 89-yard touchdown run, the Bulldoggs powered past Central Gwinnett with ease, earning their first shutout since 2016 against North Oconee. Senior J.C. Green ran for 254 yards on 22 carries, while senior Chandler Maxwell, junior Caiden Carruth, sophomores Aidan Thompson and Conyer Smith, and Gaudlock all scored rushing touchdowns, while the defense limited the Black Knights (1-7, 0-4) to 126 total yards.
“This is still a very young team, and I’m super-proud of how much they’ve developed over the course of the season and improved. I don’t think that can be understated,” Dudley said. “We’ve got a very small senior class, but they’re very tight-knitted and they provide outstanding leadership, and I think that shined through (Monday night) when we had basically a one-day turnaround from the previous game and had to get ready for another one.
“We were able to get that shutout by the skin of our teeth, but the most impressive thing was we played a lot of guys on that side of the ball and they all did well. Omarious Smith played one of his better games with two interceptions. Joel Pichardo led us in tackles and is a young linebacker who’s really starting to come into his own. Chandler Maxwell made so many good hustle plays against their fast screen game. Aidan Thompson was able to apply pressure to the quarterback the best he’s done all year, and Jacob Merrifield just continues to play at an all-state level every week.”
The Bulldoggs will need another complete effort Friday against a Buford team that is loaded with talent. The Wolves have six seniors committed to Division I programs — running backs Gabe Ervin (Nebraska) and Brandon Castro (Army), offensive guard Jacob Smith (Army), defensive tackle Matthew Alexander (Central Florida), cornerback Malik Williams (Nebraska) and safety Amari Wansley (Florida Atlantic) and three juniors who are rated among the top 50 players in their class around the state, including running back Victor Venn and corners Ryland Gundy and Isaiah Bond. Sophomore quarterback Dylan Wittke is also being recruited and has carved up most of the defenses he has seen so far this year.
“They do have a ton of talent; that’s undeniable,” Dudley said. “But what I think gets lost in translation sometimes is just how extremely well-coached they are. I got a chance to see them in person last week, and they were very well-organized. It was impressive to see and that certainly goes a long way.
“I think our players are competitors and they want to measure themselves and go over there and see how they can stack up. I believe they’re ready for the challenge.”