COVINGTON, Ga. — For just the fourth time in program history, Eastside is among a group of eight finalists in the hunt for a coveted state title.
The No. 2 seed Eagles advanced to the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals with a 37-7 throttling of No. 1 seed New Manchester on Friday night. Their reward will be a trip to another top-seeded opponent in Jones County this week for the third round of the playoffs.
“When you reach the Elite Eight in this state it’s a significant accomplishment because of the quality of football,” Eastside head coach Troy Hoff said. “To be there again — for the second time in three years, the fourth time ever — is special. We’ve talked over the last few weeks saying there are players that play their entire career and coaches that coach their entire career that never get this far. It’s a very special time.”
Part of what has made the journey spectacular are the obstacles the team was forced to overcome along the away.
One week out from their season opener, the Eagles lost first-string quarterback Jaylen Woods to a leg injury. Woods was sidelined for the first seven games of his senior season, forcing the club to plug in fellow senior Dayton Green — one of Eastside’s top targets at wideout — under center.
The team rallied around its new quarterback. The result was a 5-2 start with the losses coming to Class AAAAAA county rival Newton (21-7) and eventual Region 8-AAAAA champion Clarke Central (35-34).
Injuries are a part of the game, but the way Eastside responded to Woods going down — as well as traversing through a season in the midst of a pandemic — speaks volumes about the resiliency of the program.
“This has been the year of adversity on a number of different levels,” Hoff said. “I can’t say enough about how our kids have bought into it and just gone to work every day.”
Eastside (10-2) has been challenged all season, but their toughest task is awaiting them in Gray, Ga., this Friday night.
Jones County’s season got off to a rocky start. The Greyhounds hosted a pair of state powerhouses back-to-back to open their campaign and paid the price, getting trampled by Grayson (51-13) and North Gwinnett (44-21). They then dropped to 0-3 with a 30-6 loss on the road to Veterans.
Since then, however, things have turned out just fine.
After running the table in Region 4 and earning a No. 1 seed for the postseason, Jones County comes into the quarterfinals riding a nine-game winning streak. Their most recent triumph was a 34-13 blowout win over No. 2 Griffin last Friday night.
The Greyhounds’ identity is their rushing attack. Senior tailback Andrew Carner rushed for 220 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries against Griffin. On the season, he’s racked up 1,378 yards on the ground and a whopping 25 rushing scores on 172 carries.
Of course, Eastside is no stranger to the ground-and-pound game. Their own Dallas Johnson has put together a monster junior season, running for 1,376 yards and eight touchdowns on 178 carries thus far — including 172 yards and a pair of TDs last week.
Consequently, this quarterfinal matchup could come ultimately come down to which run defense is able to contain the opposing offense for longer.
“They definitely will try to lean on you running the football, and they’ve done a good job of that all year,” Hoff said of Jones County. “They’re similar to us in approach offensively. Maybe a little bit different in how they’re doing it, as far as schematically and by formation, but absolutely there’s some parallels there.”
The Greyhounds have also drilled opposing defenses through the air this season.
Junior quarterback John Alan Richter enters this week having completed 147 of his 247 pass attempts for 1,780 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He's spread the ball around — 13 different receivers have caught a pass this season — but his top target has been senior Maleek Wooten, who's totaled 46 receptions for 664 yards and nine touchdowns.
"It usually starts with stopping the run. If you don't stop a team from running the football there's nothing that makes them throw it," Hoff said. "We know they also throw the ball pretty well, so they're able to attack you with multiple personnel groups and they're very sound in what they do."