COVINGTON, Ga. — They call it the third season, but it’s definitely different than the others.
If any given football campaign is divided into three distinct seasons, it’s the non-region season, region play season and playoff season.
Welcome to playoff season. It’s distinctive from the others in that the only way you live to play another day is if you win the day. The urgency for seniors is at its peak, knowing that any game over these next few weeks can be their last game played.
That said, playoff season is alive and well in Newton County, as two of the county’s three schools — Eastside and Newton — still have something to play for in 2018. Here, we’ll break down each school’s playoff matchup, the opponent, players to watch and a bit of analysis of what to possibly expect, including the probability of each team moving on to the next round.
Record: 10-0 overall, 6-0 in Region 4-AAAA. Region champions.
Ranking: No. 5 in the Georgia Sportswriters Association pool.
How they got here: After running the table on the regular season and becoming the first Newton County team ever to finish a football regular season undefeated, Eastside laid claim to its first region championship in nine years and its highest top 10 ranking ever. The Eagles also set school records for points scored in a season, average margin of victory and fewest points allowed. And they’ve done it without having a star-studded cast full of highly touted individual players.
Postseason Pedigree: This is Eastside’s 11th playoff appearance since the school began playing GHSA football back in 1996, including its third straight postseason berth. The last two seasons, coach Troy Hoff’s squad has been ushered out after the first round. You’ll have to go back to 2014 to find the last time Eastside won a playoff game. Eastside’s deepest playoff run came in 2009 when it lost 21-14 to eventual Class AAA state champion Peach County in the state semifinals.
First Round Opponent: The Hardaway Hawks (6-4, 4-4) of Region 1-AAAA defeated Westover 15-14 this past Saturday to secure the fourth seed. It’s the Hawks’ first playoff appearance since 2010.
What to Watch: It’s pretty clear that Hardaway likes to run the ball, and when it does, it’s senior tailback Ja’Ron Early who gets the brunt of the work. At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Early is a strong, stocky back with a low center of gravity who hits his holes hard and has pretty good vision. He’s rushed for over 1,000 yards and a dozen rushing touchdowns while averaging north of 6 yards per carry. He’s also a viable threat as a pass catcher out of the back field with 15 receptions and 203 yards. He may actually put you in the mind of Eastside’s Taylor Carter in terms of his style of play.
Defensively, watch for Keevaughn Peterson. The 6-foot-2, 252-pound defensive end has been a quarterback sacking machine this year, registering 12.5 sacks, including the 3.5 he had Saturday in the Westover win. He leads a very active defensive front seven that prides itself on its ability to pressure the quarterback.
What to Expect: Hardaway boasts a very salty defense — one that’s second only behind region champion Cairo in terms of points allowed (156). But at just 23.6 points per game, the offense lacks some scoring punch and big-play capability outside of Early. Quarterback Dominique Ford is a bit of a gunslinger who completes passes at just over a 50 percent clip, and has about as many touchdown passes as he does interceptions. It’s possible that Hardaway could give Eastside’s offense some fits. The question will be if the Hawks can do enough on offense itself to stay with a high-octane Eagles offense that always seems to find its way.
Record: 4-6 overall, 2-3 in Region 8-AAAAAAA. Third place.
How they got here: Kind of by default, honestly. Newton did just enough to capture the No. 3 seed coming out of Region 8-AAAAAAA, thanks in part to playing in a relatively week region once you get past Grayson and Archer. The Rams are limping into the playoffs a little bit, after suffering a heartbreaking 35-34 double overtime loss to Rockdale Friday, which was upstaged only by coach Terrance Banks’ resignation Monday afternoon after six seasons at the program’s helm. Enter interim head coach Camiel Grant who will lead the team against West Forsyth Friday.
Postseason Pedigree: Despite some of the drama surrounding the program over the last week, the Rams will still celebrate their seventh straight state playoffs appearance, a streak that dates back to Cortez Allen’s last season in 2012. However, during that streak, Newton’s only gotten past the first round once — that was in 2015 when, after winning the Region 2-AAAAAA championship, Newton advanced to the quarterfinals before falling to Collins Hill. The seven-year playoff appearance streak is the longest such streak in program history.
First Round Opponent: The West Forsyth Wolverines (5-5, 4-1) of Region 5-AAAAAAA. West Forsyth may be one of the hottest teams in the playoffs, as it bounced back from a 1-4 start to win its last four games of the season to claim second place in the region standings behind region champion Milton. The Wolverines are still establishing culture under second-year coach, Shawn Cahill.
What to Watch: West Forsyth is balanced offensively if not explosive. It comes in averaging about 130 yards passing and 142 yards rushing per game. Senior wideout, Abraham Camara is the premier offensive weapon when the Wolverines throw it around. He leads the team with 616 receiving yards on 35 catches, averaging 17.6 yards per catch with eight touchdown receptions. The rushing attack has been led by seniors Stephen Bland (795 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Saxby Waxer (397 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Wolverines have used two quarterbacks pretty evenly this year, but it was sophomore, Drew Southern who led them to a win Friday against county rival South Forsyth. Through six games, Southern has completed 64 percent of his passes for 875 yards and seven scores, but with six interceptions.
Camara is also a force defensively. He tallied 16 tackles and a pick as a defensive back in West Forsyth’s win against South Forsyth. Watch also for junior linebacker, Jack Hughes. Hughes recorded 17 stops and four quarterback sacks against South Forsyth, and that single-game production isn’t an aberration, as he currently places third on the team in tackles (88) and is tops for tackles for losses (11). Junior Eli Orr is the team tackling leader with 121 tackles from his linebacker spot.
What to Expect: Newton should have the athleticism edge in this game, while West Forsyth will feed off the energy of its home crowd while looking to extend its three-year streak of winning at least one playoff game. And while its tempting to believe that Newton will be in a tailspin with an in-season coaching change, Grant is not new to this program, nor unpopular. From all accounts, the kids and coaches love him and will play and coach hard for him. So don’t be surprised to see the opposite effect in play, also — where a team will want to rally around new leadership to prove that the season isn’t lost.