After three tough losses to open the season, the LaFayette Ramblers are hoping a change of scenery and maybe a little mountain air may be just what the doctor ordered.
The Ramblers (0-3) will head to Ellijay on Friday night to face off with the Gilmer Bobcats (3-1) in a Region 7-AAAA crossover contest. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m.
Despite losing a large chunk of its offensive skill players due to graduation, the Bobcats reeled off three straight wins to start the season against Fannin County (22-0), Sonoraville (34-13), and Southeast Whitfield (18-6) before crashing back to earth with a 31-0 shutout at the hands of Dalton last week.
Junior quarterback Chris James (13-of-32, 268 yards, 1 TD) was injured in the first quarter of the game last week and did not return. His status for Friday night was still unknown as of press time, but LaFayette head coach Chad Fisher said his team is preparing as though James will play.
"He probably manages the game better than any quarterback we've faced all year," Fisher said. "He knows where to put the football and he's very accurate with his passes."
But even with a healthy James pulling the trigger, the Bobcats are a true ground-and-pound team, led by two ballcarriers that know a thing or two about being physical.
Senior running back Johnie Flakes and senior fullback Tyler Bertolini - both standouts on Gilmer's state powerhouse wrestler team - serve as Gilmer's one-two punch out of the backfield. Bertolini has rushed 73 times already this season for 393 yards and three scores, while Flakes has 38 carries for 299 yards and one TD.
When the Bobcats do go to the air, they are usually looking for tight end Austin Cole (117 yards, one TD), while wideouts Thaddeus Bowers and Corey Waters will keep defenses honest.
Gilmer has gotten solid play on defense this season, especially from the linebacker spot where Bertolini, Cole, and Austin Davis have been tough to deal with. That trio, along with Flakes in the secondary, have combined for over 130 tackles through four games. Waters has two of the Bobcats' four interceptions.
Gilmer also has a weapon on special teams in kicker Manny Lopez. Lopez is a perfect 7-of-7 on PAT's this season and is 3-of-5 on field goal tries with a long of 36 yards. He also has a 34.2 average on his 15 punts this season.
"They usually run a 4-4 front, cover 3, and we don't expect anything too different," Fisher said. "They have a good line and the linebackers are very active. They do a good job of playing assignment football.
"They are 3-1 for a reason. They are coached well and they play hard, fast, and physical. We'll have to play our best football of the year to have an opportunity to be successful."
Gilmer has won both all-time meetings with LaFayette, claiming a 36-35 double-overtime victory in 2011 and a 55-27 win last year. Bertolini had three short TD runs and the Bobcats outgained the Ramblers, 420-246, although LaFayette did average 6.5 yards per carry in the game.