The Darlington Tigers know how few teams get this far, and they know the stakes attached to each passing win. And while the opposition only gets tougher, Darlington can only trust in the skills that have gotten it there.
The Tigers will attempt to pull their second road win in a row when they travel to Bogart to play Prince Avenue Christian in the Class A Private quarterfinals on Friday night. It’s a chance to prove itself as an elite team again, all while sticking to the same principles it has had all year.
“The past few weeks, we feel like we have been starting to fire on all cylinders,” Darlington coach Tommy Atha said. “When we do that, we’re a good football team. But all of that comes down to controlling what we can control, not anything outside of that.”
Atha’s team completed its biggest win of the season last Friday, a 33-14 triumph against Aquinas in Augusta. It was the biggest defeat Aquinas suffered all season, as the Tigers allowed just 201 total yards for the game.
The Tigers (8-4) had complete control of possession, racking up 348 total rushing yards. Most of that came from senior tailback Tijai Whatley, who recorded 241 yards and a touchdown.
The win was almost a reassurance for Darlington players and coaches, both confident that their team could play with the top teams in their classification. While suffering two Region 6-A losses in the regular season, Atha’s group still trusts its abilities.
“That was a top team in the state and a top offense too,” Whatley said. “So to hold them and then also be able to run the ball down their throats, that’s really something.”
The only other team to beat Aquinas by more than 15 points this season is Prince Avenue, which is ranked No. 5 by the power rankings.
That win was part of a 9-0 start for the Wolverines and one of their eight double-digit victories.
But Prince Avenue (10-1) is not invincible, and Atha knows his team is capable of a similar performance from last week. It’s going to need that Whatley-led run game, but it’s going to need a defense clicking at the right time too.
The Tigers’ defense has allowed nine points per game in the last month and only two touchdowns in the playoffs. The difference has come from the youth, with many first-year varsity players coming into their own down the stretch.
“We are getting what we expect from the leaders, the Jacob Hunts, the Elijah Balls, Tijai,” Atha said. “But in addition, those other guys on defense are at a high level, and that’s really making a difference.”
Practice is going to be a bit different for Darlington this week, with today’s practice coming in the morning and the team having to work around Thanksgiving too.
But the drills are going to be the same, and what the team can, and cannot, control will be the same too.
“We think we beat a good team last week, and Prince Avenue beat that team too this year, so Friday night should be something,” Atha said. “You have to know the other team’s tendencies and what they do. But at the end of the day it’s all about your players doing each individual job well.”