At 0-6, it would be an understatement to say things haven’t gone the way Apalachee would have liked to this point in the season.
But the year isn’t over yet, and the Wildcats have the opportunity to turn it around this week when they travel to Gainesville on Friday, Oct. 30, to take on Johnson High School in a key GHSA Region 8-AAAAA contest. Wins in each of their final four games, or even in three of the final four could put them in position to qualify for their first state playoff appearance since 2009. But Wildcats coach Tony Lotti said there are many things his team must correct if they want to make that possibility a reality.
“Right now, all of the focus is on what’s in front of us, which is practice coming up,” Lotti said Monday. “It’s been a crazy year and we’ve yet to really focus on our process of doing things, and it has shown up in our games. There are a lot of things we don’t have control over, but we need to do a better job of controlling the things we can control.”
Apalachee (0-3 region) is coming off its second bye week of the season following a 42-27 home loss to Greenbrier on Oct. 16. While the Wildcats saw a sluggish offense that has been hit hard with injuries wake up and put together a solid night, they also again were done in by critical miscues at the most inopportune of times.
“Unfortunately, last week was another week of analyzing those missed opportunities,” Lotti said. “There were several times on both sides of the ball where we were in really good position, but we just did not make the plays we needed to make. There’s been a lot of focus from us on making sure we address whatever off-the-field issues we have, looking at how we prepare on the field and how those two go together. That kind of stuff will show up over the course of a 48-minute football game on Friday nights, so we’re really trying to work on the mental part of things as a team.”
One area of encouragement for Lotti from the Greenbrier loss was in the passing game. After falling three scores behind the Wolfpack at halftime the typically run-heavy Wildcats had to alter that approach, and the result was a career night from senior quarterback Todd Jones, who passed for 399 yards and a touchdown.
“We increased the competition level for him, and he was able to rise to the challenge with his preparation and his execution,” Lotti said of Jones, who now has 790 yards with a 54.5-percent completion percentage to go along with three touchdowns and four interceptions through six games. “That many yards in a game is not typical for us, but he delivered a lot of good balls and it should have been even more because we dropped some. It goes back to us controlling the controllable, but I was really pleased with him playing to the level we felt he was capable of.”
On Friday, the Wildcats will face another struggling team that is trying to turn things around in a hurry, as Johnson enters the game at 0-7 overall and 0-4 in the region. The Knights have been shut out four times, including a 43-0 defeat at Jackson County last week and have managed just 17 points on the year.
But, Lotti said, it all goes back to executing the game plan.
“They have been in the same boat we are with not being able to take advantage of their opportunities,” Lotti said of the Knights. “They’ve got some good players who play extremely hard, but they’re looking to make things click and bring it all together. They run the ball very hard and run to it well, so it’s again going to be a game of blocking and tackling and making sure we’re doing a good job in the kicking game.
“My mindset going in is we’re still the underdog until we prove otherwise, and we’ve got to fix us. We’ve had some flashes of brilliance throughout the year, but, unfortunately, we’ve also done some bone-headed things at times. We’ve got to prepare well and finally put it together.
“Like I tell the kids, if you want to make a withdrawal from the bank Friday and get the win, you’ve got to be making good deposits all week long.”
BULLDOGGS HEAD TO CENTRAL GWINNETT LOOKING FOR SECOND STRAIGHT WIN
After snapping a four-game skid and picking up a 35-28 home win over Shiloh last week, Winder-Barrow coach Ed Dudley believes his team picked up some much-needed confidence.
The Bulldoggs (2-4, 1-2 Region 8-AAAAAA) will need to keep the momentum going Friday when they make the trip to Lawrenceville for a region matchup with Central Gwinnett. The Black Knights (1-6, 0-3), who are coming off a 37-7 loss at Lanier last week, have been in a rough patch of their own, losing six straight games since a season-opening win over Discovery.
“They’ve probably got a chip on their shoulder and we want to be careful being at their place on Friday night with homecoming over there,” Dudley said. “We’ve got to be mentally prepared and careful. They’ve got a very fast team with athletes all over the place and some skill position kids we’re going to have to slow down.”
Sophomore quarterback Justin Johnson has been the main driving force behind the pass-heavy Central Gwinnett offense. Johnson has completed 58 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,656 yards and 11 touchdowns, though he has also taken some chances and been intercepted eight times. Johnson is also a threat to run and has 321 yards on 50 carries with a pair of scores. Senior Mekhi Mews is Johnson’s favorite target and has 55 catches for 812 yards and six touchdowns through seven games.
“The game plan for them revolves around the quarterback and understandably so,” Dudley said. “He’s a tremendous and a real team leader just as a sophomore. So we’ve got to do a good job of caging him up and trying to keep him in the pocket as much as we can. We won’t be able to fully control their passing game, but the more we can keep him caged up, the better.”
After a shutout loss to Dacula, the Bulldoggs saw some positive developments offensively last week against Shiloh despite being without senior running back J.C. Green, who was limited to one carry but unable to go any further due to an ankle injury he suffered at Dacula.
Dudley said Green will be a game-day decision this week, but that he is “rehabbing hard and ready to get back.” Still, even if he is limited again, the Bulldoggs have more comfortability in the backfield after getting breakout performances from sophomore Aidan Thompson and junior Caiden Carruth. Thompson ran for 163 yards and scored three touchdowns, while Carruth added 125 yards and a touchdown.
“They all bring a different style running the football, which I think helps us offensively,” Dudley said. “Aidan is a great power back, and Caiden brings a more shifty, slashing style. And of course, J.C. is a true shifty runner, but he packs a punch, too. He’s very important to us, one of our team captains, and I was a little bit concerned I pushed him back in too early last week, but we feel like now that didn’t really set his recovery back.”
The Bulldoggs also got a lift from sophomore Conyer Smith, who threw for 166 yards on 12-of-16 passing and a touchdown in place of the injured Trevor Summerfield. Coupled with a solid outing in relief of Summerfield at Dacula, Smith has now gained the upper hand in the quarterback pecking order, but Dudley is planning to keep Summerfield, who has been getting in practice reps at wide receiver.
“He’s a quality athlete that we’ve got to have on the field. He’s too good for us to keep him on the sideline,” Dudley said.