As far as “signature wins” go, Apalachee’s stunning come-from-behind victory at home last week over Eastside may top the list to this point in head coach Tony Lotti’s tenure with the Wildcats that started in 2018. And it may very well fit the bill if it eventually helps spur the Wildcats to their first state playoff berth in 12 years, which they’re now firmly in contention for with half a season left to play.

The Wildcats will look to take the next step toward that goal Friday, Oct. 1, when they make the trip to Evans for a key GHSA Region 8-AAAAA battle with an explosive Greenbrier team. It’s another crucial test, but not one Apalachee is shying away from after the last two weeks that saw them go toe to toe with the two teams most prognosticators billed in the preseason as region favorites — a 31-17 loss at Clarke Central, where the Gladiators pulled away late, and the victory over Eastside, their first of the season.

“I think it does give us confidence,” Lotti said of his team’s stirring second-half comeback and 22-21 win against the Eagles on Sept. 24, capped when senior running back Colby Sikes scored from 2 yards out with 44 seconds left and then carried in the winning two-point conversion. “I don’t know that our program has been in that situation before where we were big underdogs and wound up winning the game. But, for us, it was huge because it let our kids know that we could not only play with those guys but win if we played well enough. That’s a big thing for a team when you’ve got the goals that we’ve got.

“I think really since we started offseason workouts in the winner, our mantra has been you don’t necessarily have to be the best team; you just need to be the best team that night, whoever you’re playing. And the way things have been shaking out so far in this region, I think that’s a true statement. Everybody feels like they’ve got a pretty good shot right now.”

Sikes’ touchdown on his 14th carry Friday to bring Apalachee (1-4, 1-1 region) within a point gave him 67 rushing yards on the night, as the Wildcats initially lined up for Brody Ham to kick a game-tying extra point and presumably send the game to overtime. But Lotti reversed course when Eastside jumped offside on the PAT attempt — moving the ball inside the 2-yard line — and opted to go for the win. Apalachee ran the same play as the touchdown, and Sikes crossed the goal line for the lead, which the Wildcats held onto at the end after the Eagles’ last-ditch effort stalled at midfield.

“I was going to kick it because I just felt like our kids had battled back so hard that they deserved the chance to get into overtime against those guys,” Lotti said. “I’m very confident in our kicker, but at the same time those things are never a guarantee. (After the offside penalty) I looked in my kids’ eyes and felt like we had the momentum. We had a lot of confidence in that play call, and my gut told me to try to go get the win there.”

Through two weeks of region play, Clarke Central and Loganville sit atop the standings at 2-0, while Jackson County and Johnson-Gainesville are 0-2. That leaves four teams — Apalachee, Eastside, Greenbrier and Walnut Grove — all at 1-1 with five games still to play, and the Wildcats will try to get another leg up this week in their matchup with the Wolfpack (2-3 overall), who are coming off a 44-6 thrashing of Walnut Grove.

The Wildcat defense will have to grapple with a bevy of playmakers on the Greenbrier offense, including senior quarterback Brooks Pangle, who already has surpassed 1,000 yards through the air this season. Pangle, the reigning region offensive player of the year who threw for 264 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-27 win at Apalachee a year ago, has several weapons at his disposal. But perhaps none are more dangerous than junior speedster Malik Leverett, who had an eye-popping 14 receptions in last week’s win over the Warriors and has pulled off the feat of having rushing, receiving and passing touchdowns each of the last two weeks. Leverett already has several Division I offers under his belt, and 6-foot-6 senior tight end Davin Driskell is another big target for Pangle.

“(Leverett) may be the best player in the region, and they’ve got plenty of guys back,” Lotti said of Greenbrier. “(Pangle) is a special player, and we’re going to have our hands full. Same as the last two weeks, we’ve got to be fundamentally sound and not help them in any way. That’s what we’re focused on. We got a turnover last week and converted that into points, and we need to do something similar this week.

“Also, how do we handle the longer trip, and how do we get rid of any potential hangover from the emotional win last week? As a program, we’ve got to continue to learn to surge and take a step forward, not a backward step. There’s a lot sitting right in front of us.”


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