With no classes this week and the quarterfinals of the GHSA state playoffs only a day away, players from Darlington and Rome High spent the first part of their Thanksgiving practicing, something considered a special honor.
“We’ve gotten to this point and there aren’t a whole of teams left playing,” Darlington head coach Tommy Atha explained.
“Just to have the opportunity to keep practicing this week is a blessing, and our kids have been excited about that. It’s one of the things we mentioned before the season. ‘What do we got to do to practice on Thanksgiving?’”
The simple answer is win, which is what Darlington and Rome have done to reach the Elite Eight and set up a road trip to Henry County for both teams in the third round.
No. 10 Darlington will visit top-ranked Eagles Landing Christian Academy tonight in the Class A Private state playoffs, while the two-time Class 5A state champion Rome Wolves put their No. 1 ranking up against No. 4 Dutchtown.
Both games start at 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on local radio stations — 99.5 FM for Rome and 1410 AM for Darlington — and the Rome-Dutchtown game will be shown on GPTV, Comcast channel 8.
Atha invited Darlington parents and fans to watch practice Thursday morning at the school’s Chris Hunter Stadium and had biscuits and coffee on hand. Rome’s day started with food as well as players and coaches were provided Big Breakfast platters by McDonald’s.
“I had no idea by the way how much was in a Big Breakfast,” Rome head coach John Reid admitted after practice. “So the kids loved that, and we got to eat together.”
This is the third year in a row that Rome (12-0) got to practice on Thanksgiving and the second in a row for Darlington. Reid said it’s something that is growing on the players and doesn’t really see them do anything different than how they normally prepare on a Thursday before a game.
“For these guys, the real deal is they kind of like it,” Reid said. “We try to make this experience enjoyable. When they’re inside the lines it’s going to be intense and they’re going to get coached, but we try to make it fun. Sometimes some of us forget that. But it’s got to be fun because there’s way too much time spent on it for it not to be.”
Darlington (9-2) is hoping its defense can continue turning in solid performances and be effective against ELCA’s hard-nosed ground game while the offense gets another boost from running backs Kolin Rogers and Demetrius Rogers.
It’s been a season of growth for Tiger quarterback Frank Manning, who took over as the starter in Week 3 after Griffin Brewster tore his ACL. The junior was behind center for big wins over Whitfield Academy and Aquinas in the Tigers’ last two contests.
“This team has handled adversity as well as any team I’ve ever had. And I think that’s benefitted us in the long run,” Atha said. “We’ve faced adversity since early in the season. And learning to deal with that, learning to fight through it, and overcome it helps you in so many ways.”
Defense has been a strength for Rome as well, and running back Jamious Griffin has set himself apart from the state with 2,424 yards rushing for 36 touchdowns to bring power to the offense.
The Wolves broke out its passing game however last week against Cedar Shoals, reminding teams of the skills of four-year starting quarterback Knox Kadum and receiver Xavier Roberts-Donaldson.
“Over the course of the last four years, three-and-a-half years, we’ve been good on offense, defense and special teams, and hopefully it can stay that way. I think we’ve tackled well and taken care of the ball rather well,” Reid said. “At this point in time you just try to keep people up and healthy and just get a good game plan in.”