Until two-time reigning state champion Buford joined GHSA Region 8-AAAAAA last season, Dacula had been the kings of the region since 2016 — the team that the other region mainstays, including Winder-Barrow, have been chasing to no avail.
The Bulldoggs, winners of their last two games — including a 45-14 road rout of Habersham Central in region action last week — will try again to finally get over that hump Friday, Oct. 1, when they host the Falcons in what will likely be a pivotal matchup in determining the final region standings.
Since 2016, when several former 8-AAAAAA powers made the move up to Class 7A and Dacula remained behind, the Falcons have gone 26-1 in region games — including a 20-0 stretch that saw them win four straight region titles from 2016-2019 and reach the state semifinals in each of the last two years during that span.
Dacula has also been in firm control over Winder-Barrow the previous five seasons — scoring at least 40 points in four of those games, including a 47-14 thrashing of the Bulldoggs in Winder in what amounted to a region championship game in 2017. And they’ve won four of the five meetings by at least 30 points, including a 40-0 shutout last season.
“This is a major game for us,” Winder-Barrow coach Ed Dudley said. “It’s a definitely a team we’re shooting for and have been preparing for. They’ve been the standard the past several years, and we know we’ve got to continue to improve as a program if we’re going to reach their level.”
The Bulldoggs (3-2, 1-0 region) have appeared to turn a corner since giving up 35 first-half points in a 35-14 loss at Glynn Academy on Sept. 3. After a bye the following week, the Bulldoggs used a dominant fourth quarter to topple Cedar Shoals 36-18 on Sept. 17 and were in full control last week in the win over the Raiders in Mount Airy. Aidan Thompson ran for a pair of touchdowns to help the Bulldoggs build a 28-7 halftime advantage, and they continued to pour it on in the second half. Conyer Smith threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Trevor Summerfield, and the Bulldoggs also got rushing touchdowns from Jamarious Smith, Caiden Carruth and Cam Hodge.
“I thought our guys took the week seriously and understood the implications of the game,” Dudley said of last week’s win. “Our preparation was good, and we were super-excited to continue to see the strides on offense. Unfortunately, none of those points carry over to this week, and we have to start over. Every week is its own entity, and we’ve got to go get ready for a major battle this week.”
The Falcons (2-3, 1-0), who started the season sluggishly as well, bounced back in a massive way last week, exploding for 54 first-half points en route to a 54-20 win over Lanier in their region opener.
“It was a very impressive showing,” Dudley said. “We were hoping they might stay asleep a little longer, but they’re back to playing like the Dacula everyone has come to expect. It’s not going to be an easy task Friday night.”
The Falcons, in their first year under head coach Casey Vogt, are a predominantly run-heavy team offense led by senior Kyle Efford, a Georgia Tech commit who scored two touchdowns in the win over Lanier last week, and fullback Jonathan Williams among several others.
“(Efford) is definitely a fantastic player, but at the end of the day they have a quality team all the way around, so you can’t afford to key on one guy,” Dudley said, adding that he’s been pleased with his own team becoming more offensively balanced the last couple of weeks.
Thompson has been the top offensive player all year for the Bulldoggs, racking up 338 rushing yards (5 per carry) and nine touchdowns through five games, and he had 94 yards rushing on 19 touches and the two scores against Habersham last week. But the Bulldoggs also got a strong performance from the senior Carruth, who finished with 99 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown against the Raiders, and quarterback Conyer Smith, whose season-high 234 passing yards raised his total to 663 for the year.
“We’ve always tried to maintain a committee of running backs and don’t want to be too heavily dependent on one player, and Caiden is a leader who has definitely earned his opportunity,” Dudley said. “We’ve been more well-balanced, no doubt. As a coaching staff and players, we can’t be too heavy on one end; we’ve got to be able to attack defenses effectively on multiple fronts. A lot of it starts up front. Coming into this year, we felt like our offensive line could be a point of strength. Maybe we asked too much of them early on in the year, but they’re really coming around.
“We’re playing pretty well right now, and we’re pretty healthy. We’ve shown improvement, but we’re far from being a finished product and there are no laurels to rest on. Let’s go see where we are this week.”