COVINGTON, Ga. — No motivation needed.
If a banner were to be hung over the Eastside Eagles’ practice field this week, that’s probably what it would say, according to head football coach Troy Hoff.
That’s because the Class AAAA No. 5 Eagles, one week removed from claiming their first region championship in nine years, are now looking to add another milestone to its pristine 2018 resume in a way that perhaps rivals the region title in importance.
When Eastside takes on Hampton in a 7:30 p.m. Region 4-AAAA kickoff Friday night, it’ll be looking to become the first Newton County football program to finish a regular season undefeated. And although that achievement alone won’t put any extra hardware on Eastside’s trophy mantle, Hoff said his guys are geeked at the opportunity to make history.
“Ten and 0 is a big deal to them,” Hoff said. “So the good part about that is, there’s not a lot of motivation needed to get them up for game 10, knowing that the region’s already locked up.”
Which means the No. 1 seed and home field advantage is also already in hand for Eastside, giving Hoff’s bunch the luxury of playing at Sharp for much of the postseason, as long as they stay alive.
In fact, he acknowledged that capturing the region championship in last week’s 41-0 win over Henry County cleared Eastside of some of the pressure to get that region title monkey off its back, paving the way for a sharp, singular focus on chasing history at Hampton.
“I definitely think so, that it was a monkey off our back,” Hoff said. “Our kids were excited, but our position as coaches, you’re obviously excited about it, but you know what went into it, and they’re gonna look back and appreciate it when it’s all said and done. It’s something to be said about the grind and challenge and journey to get there. It’s been a long nine years, and we’ve won a lot of football games, but hadn’t done that.”
And just as Hoff said finishing on top of the region, after a couple of years coming close, wasn’t easy, he also knows that beating Hampton to clear that 10th and final regular season hurdle won’t be a walk in the park either.
“We’re going to treat (Hampton) the same way,” Hoff said. “It’s a good opponent. We’re going on the road. It’s game 10. Hampton still has an outside shot (at the playoffs). That means they have something to play for, so this is not a pushover. It’s not a gimme. Our guys know what they’re getting into.”
Hoff calls Hampton head coach, and program founder, Chad Ashley “a friend” that he’s known a while. And because of that, Hoff has watched Ashley build the Hornets’ football program from an 0-9 inaugural season playing in a gauntlet region that included the likes of Griffin and Eastside before reclassification temporarily shifted them away, to back-to-back 5-5 seasons where they’ve been on the precipice of breaking through to the postseason.
In short, Hoff has loads of respect for his Friday night counterpart.
“Chad’s done a great job down there,” Hoff said. “And it’s been a struggle building a new program in a transient area with a lot of movement with players. But they’ve built a couple of good teams. They’re back into 4A football where they should’ve probably been the whole time, and they’ve done a good job being competitive. We’re definitely not looking through them.”
Hoff lauded his coaching staff for their work at keeping the Eagles competitive as well during what he dubbed a solid two weeks of practice.
The coach, in his third year at Eastside’s helm, said that his players have fully bought into the one-game-at-a-time, business-like approach to things, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been letting their hair down a bit and getting after it, even while in preparation mode.
“They’ve been going at it with a lot of good energy,” Hoff said. “We had another good Tuesday practice this week. Last Tuesday we had, maybe the best practice we’ve had all season, but were a little inconsistent to follow it up. So we challenged them not to have a better Wednesday than we did last week. Just challenging them to be better today than they were yesterday.”
And judging by the intensity of some of the workouts, the challenge has been well received.
“We like to keep score on some things and keep track of some things,” Hoff said. “So it got pretty heated out there when we’d score on the defense. You try to keep it competitive and fun. You never want them to tired at this point of the season.”
Hoff said it was “hard to believe” that the last week of the regular season has come already. And with the playoffs in view — and a game against the No. 4 seed out of Region 1-AAAA (a battle between Westover, Hardaway and Columbus for that final spot) already determined, some might not blame Eastside for taking a sneak peak ahead.
But the allure of going 10-0 will be more than enough, Hoff believes, to keep his guys laser-focused on Hampton.
“We’ve been knowing that if we play football like we’re supposed to, and we get down to game nine and 10, we have a real strong possibility of finishing where we need to be,” Hoff said. “I’m excited, and they’re excited about this one too.”