That’s the kind of thinking that has sent Darlington football teams to the playoffs for the last 12 years in a row, and he doesn’t want it to change.
The No. 10-ranked Tigers will welcome Aquinas to Chris Hunter Stadium on Friday at 7:30 p.m. for a matchup that will send the winner to the Elite Eight of the Class A Private state playoffs. A win would send Darlington to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive season.
“You pay a price all along so that you can afford yourself this type of opportunity, and when you get it you want to do everything you can to take advantage of it,” Atha said. “We are always fired up and excited to have the opportunity to be in the postseason. That’s something we don’t take for granted. It’s an honor for us, and it’s something we talk about in the offseason.”
The Tigers come into the second round of the playoffs off a bye week thanks to their No. 6 ranking in the final Class A Private Power Ratings. While the off week afforded time for the team to heal up, Atha didn’t want his team to lose its focus on the small things.
“Fundamentals — whether it’s Week 1 or Week 14, or 15,” Atha said. “We’re going to make sure we stick to the fundamentals every day. The week off has been a blessing. No injuries, but we were banged up from Week 10, so we’re back at full strength. It’s given us an opportunity to work on some things and correct some mistakes, so we feel like we’ve taken advantage of it.”
Darlington (8-2) is going up against an Aquinas team that features a well-balanced offensive attack. Senior quarterback J.P. Lambert has passed for 937 yards and five touchdowns while also rushing for 706 yards and another 13 touchdowns.
Kam Brinson leads the run game with 832 yards and nine touchdowns. The Fightin’ Irish (9-2) are the 11th-ranked team in the power ratings and are coming off a 30-14 win against Stratford Academy in the first round.
“They’re a very good football team,” Atha said. “They have the ability to do different things offensively. The option is a big part of their game, but they can run the ball right at you too, and they can spread the ball around. They’re a chore to get prepared for. Defensively they run well to the ball. They’ve got some really good athletic kids, so it’s a huge challenge.”
Darlington junior running back Kolin Rogers has helped carry the Tigers’ offense since the team lost starting quarterback Griffin Brewster in the second week of the season to an injury.
Rogers’ most-recent performance helped the Tigers’ secure the bye week when he rushed for 249 yards and three touchdowns against Whitefield Academy to close out the regular season. Rogers is also one of the top rushers in the state with 1,241 yards on the season.