After going 10-0 in the regular season, the second season for the Region 6-AAAA champion Ridgeland Panthers will get cranked up at Bowers and Painter Field on Friday night when they face the Chapel Hill Panthers, the No. 4 seed from a very tough Region 5.
Kick-off is set for 7:30 p.m.
Chapel Hill is 6-4 overall and finished 3-3 in region play with their losses coming at the hands of top-ranked Cartersville (62-0), ninth-ranked Cedartown (47-14) and Troup (48-12), a team that won eight games and also spent time in the top 10 this season. Their only other loss was a 56-21 set back to Class AAAAA state contender Starr's Mill.
Their victories came at the expense of Fayette County (35-6), Lithia Springs (32-14), Whitewater (21-14), Sandy Creek (35-32), Central-Carroll (35-14) and LaGrange (25-18).
The Panthers from Douglasville are coached by Justin DeShon.
"Once you get in this part of the season, everyone has a good football team," Ridgeland head coach Wesley Tankersley said. "(Chapel Hill) has good players and they're very well-coached. We're going to have to come out focused this week and ready to go to try to get a win. Thankfully, we have homefield advantage and hopefully that will play a big part."
Dual-threat junior quarterback K.J. Burton has thrown for 1,047 yards (62-of-136) with 10 touchdowns against six interceptions, while rushing a team-high 117 times for 719 yards and 13 TD's, also both team-highs.
However, Burton's status for the game was unknown as of press time. A published report said he suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter of last week's game with Cedartown and did not return. The severity of the injury was not disclosed.
If Burton is unable to go, the quarterbacking duties would likely be filled by 5-foot-7 senior backup Jeron Hobbs, who has played in just four games this season. Hobbs has five yards passing (1-of-1) and five yards rushing on two carries.
In the backfield will be the trio of senior Tyler Shelton, junior Joshua Milfort and sophomore Chancellor Lee Parker. Milfort has 83 carries for 432 yards and four touchdowns. Parker has picked up 234 yards and two scores on 49 carries, while Shelton has 28 rushes for 139 yards and one score. He is also the team's leading receiver with 25 catches, 461 yards and four TD's.
Senior Myles LeBlanc (11 rec., 169 yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore Elijah Brown (7 rec., 136 yards, 1 TD) are also targets when Chapel Hill goes to the air. Up front, senior Tommy Esparza (6-2, 300) and junior Owen Gilbert (6-2, 290) help lead the way.
"It's kind of a spread offense with some one-back stuff and some smash-mouth stuff," Tankersley explained. "Scheme-wise, they do some things very similar to what Darlington did on offense."
On defense, senior end Micah Cockfield (6-2, 220) has 14 tackles for loss and six sacks this season, while sophomore end Bradyn Swinson (6-3, 210) is right behind him with 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. One more defensive end, Kevin Burton (6-0, 220) has a dozen tackles for loss this season, adding to Chapel Hill's total of 83 on the year.
As a team, they also have 21 sacks and 13 interceptions, including five picks by junior defensive back Miles Richardson. Other names to know include junior linebacker Cameron McClain and senior linebacker Tre Reeves, and Francisco Uribe, who handles the kicking chores. K.J. Burton is also the team's primary punter, while LeBlanc, Shelton and Richardson are all three used on returns.
"Defensively, they're a 4-3 and sometimes a 4-4," Tankersley added. "They have lots of speed, though. They'll be the fastest team we've played all year to this point, so we'll see how our kids respond to that."
Ridgeland, coming off its second straight Region 6 title and its sixth in the past 10 seasons, will counter with the senior backfield duo of Jalyn Shelton and Markeith Montgomery. Shelton has 1,063 yards and 18 touchdowns on 162 carries, while Montgomery has picked up 1,012 yards and 15 scores on just 69 attempts.
Seniors Desmond Johnson and Gabe McDonald, along with junior A'zavier Blackwell and junior quarterback Tanner Hill, have combined for 802 yards on the ground and 18 additional touchdowns. Hill has thrown for 917 yards (43-of-82) and nine scores, while junior Stephon Walker has 26 catches for 636 yards (24.5 average) and nine touchdowns. Montgomery and Torrance Roberts have each caught one TD pass.
On special teams, sophomore kicker Conner Middleton has converted 61-of-66 extra points and 2-of-3 field goals, his longest being 36 yards.
Chapel Hill will be making only its sixth all-time appearance in the state playoffs since its opened its doors in 2000. This year also marked just the fifth time the Panthers finished above .500.
Three of those winning seasons came under then-head coach Chris Parker, who is now at Pickens. Parker went 26-17 at Chapel Hill between 2008 and 2011. His best season with the Panthers was his first as he guided them to a 9-3 campaign and the No. 2 seed in Region 4-AAAAA, just one year removed from an 0-10 season.
Last year, Chapel Hill made the playoffs as the No. 4 seed from Region 5 and lost 33-0 to Blessed Trinity in the opening round.
Ridgeland will look to continue its home dominance in the state playoffs. Since the AstroTurf was installed at Bowers and Painter Field, the Black-and-Silver are 6-1 at home in the post-season, with the one loss coming to Spalding in the second round last fall.
The winner of the game will face either White County or Jefferson in the second round. Chapel Hill would play the game on the road, while Ridgeland will get to host the contest.