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West Hall tops Dawson 10-7 for 1st playoff trip since 2002

Spartans earn No. 4 berth in Region 7-AAA, open against Cartersville

POSTED: November 9, 2013 2:34 a.m.
Ryan Coker/For The Times

West Hall running back Antonio Pittman carries the ball against Dawson County during Friday's game in Dawsonville. The Spartans won 10-7, clinching their first state playoff berth since 2002.

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DAWSONVILLE — Tony Lotti had an important phone call to make.

Just moments after West Hall earned a 10-7 win over Dawson County on Friday night to secure the school’s first playoff berth in 11 years, the Spartans’ coach had to call the team’s biggest motivation all season — injured teammate Tavezz Thurmond.

Lotti’s call to Thurmond, who underwent brain surgery earlier this week after being injured during a practice earlier in the season, was something he said he would do when the two met earlier in the day in the intensive care unit.

When Thurmond got on the other line, Lotti let West Hall’s players do the talking. Thurmond was greeted with a giant uproar and one clear message: West Hall was going to the playoffs.

“I was with him earlier today in the ICU and I told him, ‘You’re such a big part of what we’re doing, and I need you to keep fighting and doing what you’re supposed to do. And we’re going to see if we can’t end this drought,’” an emotional Lotti said.

“I think it’s been a long time, and a lot of different people involved in this program, for them to have a winning season. I’m so happy and proud for the people of West Hall High School.”

West Hall (6-4, 4-3 Region 7-AAA) used a 17-yard run by senior Hunter Atkinson to ice the victory. The run gave the Spartans a new set of downs and a pair of Zach English kneel-downs sent the Spartans into the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and left Dawson County (5-5, 3-4) without a ticket to postseason play.

West Hall, the No. 4 seed from Region 7, will visit Cartersville in the first round of the state playoffs next week.

The Spartans grabbed a 7-0 lead on their opening drive of the game, using 16 plays to go 89 yards. An English 4-yard run capped off the drive and put the Spartans onto the scoreboard after burning almost 10 minutes off the clock.

Dawson County responded on its following possession, using a 20-yard pass from quarterback Zack Buchan to Jackson Putnam to tie the score at 7-7.

A few possessions later, West Hall scored the final points of the game, coming on a 37-yard field goal from Bradley Hodgson.

Dawson County had multiple chances to tie the game in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t take advantage of a pair of West Hall fumbles inside Spartan territory.

Each time off the turnovers — a fumble from English and another from Atkinson — the Spartans’ defense rose to the occasion and forced Dawson County into long field goal attempts.

“I know (Dawson County) has a great kicker; he is all-region, and so I knew he’d be in range,” Lotti said. “But I was so proud of how our kids played. We never gave up.”

Off Dawson County’s final miss, West Hall took over possession with 2:50 remaining and was forced to convert a pair of third downs to secure the win. The final conversion was Atkinson’s 17-yard run out of the shotgun.

“In a senior role, I just felt like I needed to step up and make a big play,” Atkinson said. “I let my team down (earlier) and I just wanted to secure the win for us.”

For Lotti, there was no doubt who was going to get the ball in that situation. It was a play that was going to send the Spartans back into the playoffs. A senior had to make the play.

“I needed one play,” Lotti said. “I needed a play and I told (Atkinson), ‘I’m putting it in your hands. Make a play.’ And my gosh, we needed seven to kill it out.”

Both teams were plagued by turnovers, especially in the second half. West Hall finished the night with three turnovers, while Dawson County turned the ball over twice on fumbles and two times on downs.

The turnovers hurt both offensive units, which were shutout across the final two quarters.

“The turnovers scared me because of the fact that in big games you can’t turn the ball over,” Lotti said. “But my kids are resilient. We’ve been through a lot this season.”

Despite the turnovers, the Spartans were able to prevail, largely because of the defensive stands late and the pair of third-down conversions on the final drive.

The end result was something West Hall had been hoping for since Lotti arrived on campus prior to the 2012 season: A playoff berth.

“I only looked at a few kids (when I walked on campus) and told them, ‘If you believe, and work, we can fix this thing,’” said Lotti, who guided West Hall to just a 3-7 record last year.

“And what was critical was this senior class. I don’t have a lot of them, but it is a quality class.”

That quality senior class made the difference Friday. It was English who scored the Spartans’ touchdown, Atkinson who iced the game on the third down late in the fourth quarter and senior Antonio Pittman who carried the majority of the offensive load on the night.

Pittman finished with a team-high 84 yards rushing and the Spartans finished the night with 226 yards of total offense.



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