After his team’s 35-7 victory over Morgan County Friday, Eastside coach Rick Hurst huddled his team together near the north end zone and pulled out a blue, football-shaped patch from his jacket pocket and raised it above his head.
"Men, I’ve been to the promised land," he told his wide-eyed team. "I know what it’s like to play on the big stage. If we beat Franklin County next week, we are region champs."
The patch commemorated Hurst’s Americus team he coached on that went 14-1 in 1996, only to fall in the state championship game.
Next week is tonight. Eastside has the chance to win its first football title of any kind, but it will need to beat a hungry Franklin County team at Sharp Stadium to do so.
The Eagles (8-1, 6-1 Region 8-AAA) have been the front runners all season. Over their last three games, they’ve scored 134 points while giving up just two touchdowns. Even those touchdowns were against the second team defense after the games were decided. Eastside is playing at a high level and will need to keep it up as Franklin County (5-4, 3-3) can still make the playoffs with a win and an Oconee County loss."We’ve had a good week," Hurst said. "The tempo has been good and the focus is there. They know what’s at stake."
Eagles' quarterback Justin Wray sat out practice Tuesday and Wednesday after hyper extending a knee, but Hurst expects his senior leader to play. If Wray can’t go, backup Califf Carnes will get the call.
"I think it scared him a little bit more than anything," Hurst said. "But we kept him out to be sure and let him rest."
Carnes threw well in seven-on-seven passing drills Wednesday and Hurst said he has confidence the sophomore can step in and lead the team if needed.
Both the offense and defense are clicking right now. Hurst said he looks back at his Americus team and said everything came together around the ninth game. He feels like the Eagles are at that point now but is cautiously optimistic about his chances tonight.
"Confidence is pretty high, but what my concern is our confidence too high," Hurst said. "Are we being too complacent and are we feeling like we are too good? That’s the one thing that could get us."
Franklin County will have to stop the Eagles’ rushing attack. That may be easier said than done. After last week’s demolishing of Morgan County, Bulldog coach and Hurst’s personal friend Bill Malone told him he didn’t think Franklin County had a shot at stopping them if the Eagles continue to play the way they have the past three weeks.
"We are going to play a team that has as much, or nearly as much talent as us," Hurst said. "They are very athletic and that’s something we haven’t faced since Hart County. But I think we show enough different looks that it will make us hard to stop."
While coaches and players won’t publically make excuses about the Hart County game, privately they feel like the week off from school and the inclement weather throughout the week played a part in the defeat. Ultimately, Hurst took the blame for the team’s lackluster performance and cited a lack of preparation as the reason for the loss. That’s something he says won’t happen again this year.
The Eagles will face a tough Franklin County defense, especially up the middle. To be successful, Hurst said they will need to get to the edge and utilize the speed and cutting ability of Wray and running back Git Aiken to move the chains and sustain drives.
"They are pretty simple on offense," Hurst said. "They are about 65/35 run to pass and don’t run outside the tackles. Defensively, they have a big defensive line. Will have to get Git [Aiken} out on the edge and he does such a good job finding a seam and cutting back with one move that he’ll be tough to stop."
Even so, Hurst isn’t overlooking Franklin County.
"They played Hart well until late and they played Stephens well until late too so it’s going to be a tough game," he said. "I hope our guys are ready for it because when you’ve had three blowouts in a row, sometimes you get to thinking that’s the way it’s supposed to be each week. If we think this is going to be a blowout, they’re in for a wide awakening unless we come out and really, play well."
Tonight’s game is what every school plays for. With a chance for home field advantage in the playoffs and the school’s first region championship, Hurst believes his team will be ready to play.
"They all know what we are playing for," he said. "If the guys can’t get motivated for this game, there isn’t anything I can say that will motivate them. We’re going to have to come out and make sure we are ready to play."