Apparently the road to Atlanta runs near the Florida line.
At least that is the case for the Calhoun High School football team when they resume play Friday night in the Georgia high school 5A state playoffs with a second-round matchup against Ware County in Waycross which, according to Google Maps, is 307 miles from our great little town.
Just how close is Ware County to the Florida line? Well, their nickname is the Gators.
“It’s going to be a real challenge this week and not just because we’re playing probably the best team we’ve played all year,” Calhoun head football coach Clay Stephenson said. “There’s a lot of logistics involved in playing a game like this as far away as it is. We’ve got to arrange the travel. We’ve got make plans for the meals. We want to make sure we get there in plenty of time, so we can kind of get the lay of the land and make sure everyone is loosened up and ready to go. So, there’s a lot of planning that goes into playing a game this far away, but I think we are prepared for anything that we may have to deal with.”
Despite the Yellow Jackets’ regular routine being changed up because of the distance involved between the two schools and the mystery of facing a team for the first time ever, this is the Georgia state football playoffs where winners want to be in that title game in Atlanta next month and Stephenson said they wouldn’t trade their situation for anything.
“We are super excited to be playing this week and hoping we can play our best football Friday night,” he said. “I know we got a lot of stuff going on right now that we normally don’t have to ever think about, but we’ve got a chance to win another playoff football game and that’s really the bottom line focus for us. I feel like we’ve got great senior leadership on this team and no matter how far we have to go, because of what is at stake, we’ll be ready to go Friday night.”
The Jackets began the postseason last Friday night at chilly Phil Reeve Stadium with a 35-21 ousting of Decatur. The hosts fell behind 13-0, but then got it going and totally dominated the game down the stretch.
“We got off to a sluggish start, but I was really pleased with the way the kids played in the second half,” Stephenson said. “You fall behind 13-0 in a playoff game and you can go into panic mode. But I didn’t sense any panic in the kids. I felt like if we could make a couple of plays, we could get the lead back before halftime and fortunately that’s exactly what happened.
“We scored there just before halftime to get the lead and came out, recovered an onside kickoff to start the second half, and then we were able to get another touchdown right away and I felt like getting those two touchdowns in about two or three game-time minutes like that was huge.
“And I thought by the the fourth quarter, we were really starting to control the game in all three phases. We shut them out defensively. We got another touchdown after the punt-tackle, I guess you’d call it, by Dustin Kerns that set up the short field for us. And that touchdown finally gave us a little separation and then the defense stepped up, and kept them from scoring any more points, so that’s what you like to see, your team getting better as the game goes along and I felt like we did that Friday night. But we definitely don’t want to fall behind by two scores like that.”
Both teams were in a game of keep away early, combining to go for it five times on fourth down in the first half. But the first time Decatur tried it, had it failed (and the spot by the referee did appear shaky at best), it might have been entirely different game because the Bulldogs went for it at their own 21-yard-line.
“We felt like if they don’t get that first down right there, we had a great chance to score and take the lead because we would have had great field position, but the refs said they got the first down,” Stephenson said. “But that was a big decision and that’s kind of the route you take in these playoff games. You want to be aggressive with your calls and your decision-making because you want your kids to be aggressive with their play on the field, so that was a big decision on their part and it paid off.
“We went into the game, just like we’ll go into this game, being aggressive with what we’re trying to do, whether it’s rolling the dice on a few fourth down attempts or just feeling good about a play we have set up for a certain situation. But that was a big choice on their part.”
He said things like that make it apparent that teams want to keep that explosive and relentless Yellow Jacket offense on the sidelines for as long as possible and the defense has to prevent that.
“Our defense is playing well, but we have to do a better job at getting off the field,” Stephenson said. “They had one real long drive on us and converted three fourth downs on us and we’ve got to do a better job in that situation.”
They will now tackle a Ware County team that is 9-1 on the year and opened the playoffs with a 42-28 victory over Banneker last Friday night.
“They’re an excellent football team,” Stephenson said. “They’ve got a super fast quarterback. They’ve got good size and good speed and a lot of good athletes. We’re going to have to play well. We’re going to have to play fast. We’re going to have to play physical.
“We need to get off to a good start and weather the storm because we’re going to have to overcome some things, whether it’s a call or a big play. We need to stay in the game and do all we can to be right there in the fourth quarter. And because we have some big-play players, anytime we’re right there in the fourth quarter, I like our chances. But we’re going to have to withstand some shots and keep fighting because that’s what the playoffs are all about and this is an excellent team we’re playing.”
Like Calhoun, the Gators, who are 9-1 this year, have put up a lot of points with 413 this year in 10 games.
They have topped the 40-point barrier in seven of their games and scored 42 points in their only loss, a 49-42 non-region setback to Savannah Benedictine. Their single-game low point total is a 28-21 win over Veterans High School, a week after they beat Warner Robins, 29-21, last month in the game that determined the 5A Region I champion.
Senior quarterback Thomas Castellanos leads Ware County offensively with 2,393 yards passing and another 871 rushing. He is accounting for nearly 300 yards per game in offense with an average of 239 passing and 87 rushing per outing.
He has completed 156-of-248 attempts for a 65 percent completion rate and has 25 scoring passes and nine picks on the year. The senior has also ran for 11 touchdowns and is averaging seven yards per carry.
Senior wide receiver James Daniels, who has 40 catches, and junior Jarvis Hayes, who has 27 receptions, are his favorite targets.
Senior Cartevious Norton, who has 1,166 yards and 12 touchdowns on 134 carries, is the team’s leading rushing and averages almost eight yards per attempt.
The winner of the Calhoun-Ware County game will meet the winner of the Starr’s Mill-Clark Center game next week in the 5A quarterfinals.
Calhoun is one of three 5A Region teams in the second round as Blessed Trinity defeated Southwest DeKalb, 41-20, and will now play Woodward Academy Friday night in a battle of private schools.
And Cartersville meets Warner Robins in a rematch of last year’s 5A state championship game this week as well after the Purple Hurricanes pummeled Lithonia, 51-0, in their opening-round matchup.
And one could make the case that four Region 7 teams, or a quarter of the Sweet 16, are still alive with Villa Rica, which officially becomes a member of the league next year, also advancing to the second round with a 42-12 conquest of Jackson County.
For Calhoun fans, kickoff Friday night at Memorial Stadium in Waycross is set for 7:30 p.m.