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High School Football: Spartans start strong

POSTED: September 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS /The Times

West Hall's Marquise Stephens carries the ball during the Spartans' Tuesday afternoon practice as the team prepares for their Friday night game at White County High.

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OAKWOOD — Three wins.

For years, three wins has been a season goal, or a season total for West Hall.

How quickly things change.

After three weeks of the 2008 season, the Spartans already have three wins. At 3-0, this year’s group of Spartans are already one win better than the teams of 2006 and 2007, and have equalled the win totals from the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

So what’s the reason for this sudden success in Spartanland? Coach Mike Newton has a simple answer:

“Consistency with the coaching staff and the players, I think that’s the key,” said Newton, who is in his second year at the helm of the Spartans.

Still, Newton wasn’t expecting this kind of start.

“I thought we had a chance to do well early, but I didn’t think 3-0,” he said. “But if we played our game, with the kids we have on our team, I felt we’d have success.”

Success that has not been seen in Oakwood since 2002, when the Spartans started 7-0 and reached the first round of the state playoffs. The last time West Hall finished a season with a non-losing record was in 2003, when it finished 5-5.

This year, the Spartans are well on their way to catapulting that five-win total.

“We’re just coming out here and working hard,” sophomore quarterback Shunquez Stephens said of the team’s success. “We had a real good team last year, but we just couldn’t get stuff together.
“I think the work ethic is way better than it was last year.”

Not only is the work ethic better, but the play of Stephens has improved, as well.

As a freshman quarterback, Stephens threw for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns, but he completed just over 50 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions.

“Last year I was kind of nervous,” said the 6-foot-4, 245-pound quarterback. “This year I am more relaxed.”

More comfortable running West Hall’s spread offense, Stephens has thrown for 747 yards and nine touchdowns in the first three games of the season, and has only been intercepted once.

But Shunquez Stephens isn’t the only reason why West Hall is 3-0. Lost in Shunquez’s stellar start is the play of his older brother, Marquise Stephens (286 yards rushing and three touchdowns) and wide receiver Rodney Gibson, who has been on the receiving end of six-of-the-nine touchdown passes thrown by Shunquez Stephens.

“When you’re a senior, you gotta be a team leader and step up and do what you do to make the team successful,” said the senior running back Stephens, who’s rushing totals are augmented by 125 yards receiving and a touchdown. “I’m just so proud of our team and we’re working really hard.”

While the offense — which is scoring more than 25 points per game — may be at the forefront of the team’s early success, in Newton’s eyes the Spartans’ defense has been the most impressive.

“From Week 1 to Week 2, they had a great improvement,” Newton said of his team’s defense, that after giving up 27 points to East Jackson in the season opener, has surrendered just three points over the last two games.

“I don’t care who you’re playing,” added Newton, who’s Spartans shut out Gilmer 27-0 last week. “To give up three points, that’s outstanding.”

West Hall will need that type of outstanding effort if it is to improve it’s record to 4-0.

On Friday, the Spartans travel to Cleveland to take on White County (1-2), a team that held the vaunted Gainesville offense scoreless in the first half last week.

“They’re very physical up front, and we’re going to have to control the line of scrimmage,” said Newton, referrering to White County’s offensive and defensive lines. “We’ve got a tough road.”

That road includes Friday’s game at White County, a visit to City Park to take on Gainesville, and then a home game against Flowery Branch.

The combined records of West Hall’s next three opponents? 6-3. The combined records of its first three? 1-6.

But even with a tough three-game stretch, winning the first three games has provided the Spartans with a confidence that will only be magnified if they win Friday and improve to 4-0.

“If that occurs then I think the kids are going to start believing in themselves, and say, ‘Hey, maybe we can do more then we thought we could,’” Newton said.

“We just have to keep winning and get better each week,” he added. “Get better each week, have a good Friday night, and we’ll see where the chips fall, and hopefully we’ll come out on the better end.”

According to his quarterback, that end will be in the postseason.

“I see us going to the playoffs,” Shunquez Stephens said. “I really do.”



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