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PREP FOOTBALL: Darlington taking stock of season heading into play-in game

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Tijai Whatley

Running back Tijai Whatley and the Darlington Tigers are attacking the end of the regular season Friday with a trip to Whitefield Academy. Whatley has 1,094 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. (File, Jeremy Stewart/RN-T.com)

It has been a season of lessons and determination for the Darlington football team. Recognizing mistakes and correcting them became a big part of the Tigers’ focus as they fought to find an identity.

But fortunes turned and a stretch of five wins in its last six games has put Darlington on a path to make the state playoffs, and given it a new sense of enthusiasm heading into a Region 6-A play-in game Friday at Whitefield Academy in Mableton.

The contest features the third-seeded teams from each Region 6A subregion and could influence the final GHSA Class A Private power rankings that determine the pairing for the state playoffs, which begin next week.

“For us, it’s all based on the power ranking, so Game 1 and Game 10 are all of equal importance,” Darlington coach Tommy Atha said. “This game definitely has ramifications on where we fall in the power rankings.”

Darlington (6-3, 5-1 6-A/A) is at No. 10 in the most recent rankings released on Tuesday while Whitefield (6-3, 5-2 6-A/B) is No. 16. The top eight teams earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs and the next eight teams host the opening round.

“It just goes to reason that the higher you are, the better draw you have in the playoffs, theoretically,” Atha said. “So we want to do everything we can to enhance our power ranking, and we need to win this week.”

The game against the Wolfpack comes at an advantageous time for the Tigers as they got to catch their breath during their bye week last week after playing nine weeks in a row. After starting the season 1-2 with losses to Ridgeland (ranked No. 2 in Class 4A) and Heard County (No. 7 in AA), Darlington has gone 5-1.

Senior running back Tijai Whatley said they have taken a strong look at the little things they need to do right to win games and feels like they are clicking right now.

“I know we’ve had our ups and downs. I mean, I think it’s going good. We’ve had a few games where we’ve messed up a lot, but we’ve had games where we were rolling,” Whatley said. “We’ve gotten a lot better since the first game, which you can tell, and I think we’re just getting better every week.”

A Georgia Tech commit, Whatley has 1,094 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing this season to go along with 305 yards and three touchdowns receiving. Quarterback Griffin Brewster is 66-of-114 passing for 1,080 yards and 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.

The Tigers’ defense has had some strong moments, holding four opponents to two touchdowns or less and causing havoc with 11 interceptions so far.

The Tigers’ last loss, to Mt. Zion-Carroll on Sept. 29, was an overtime thriller that came down to a missed extra point.

“I think the biggest thing that we took away from that was just the need and the mandate to play 48 minutes of football. That was sort of our point of emphasis and rallying cry after that,” Atha said. “And really, going into the Mt. Zion game, it had kind of been that way. We had been playing well in spurts, but we really hadn’t put it all together.”

A test of that quest for consistency came two weeks later when Darlington hosted Trion and won 35-31 after a last-second touchdown pass by the Bulldogs was deflected by Karl Swiger in the end zone.

“We felt like in the Trion game we hit our stride and played a full 48 minutes,” Atha said. “And it took all 48 minutes to win that football game.”