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Chestatee pursuing upset against top-ranked Sandy Creek in second round

War Eagles visit defending state champion Fighting Patriots on Friday

POSTED: November 20, 2013 9:43 p.m.
Jared Putnam | The Times/

Chestatee running back Zac Cheshire takes a handoff during practice on Wednesday. The War Eagles travel to top-ranked Sandy Creek on Friday in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.

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Chestatee tight end Noah Baxter put it simply when describing the implications of Friday’s state playoff game against Sandy Creek.

“We can shock the world,” he said.

Baxter has the backing of the entire War Eagles roster and coaching staff. The team makes its first appearance in the second round of the playoffs this week against the Fighting Patriots, who won the Class AAAA championship last season and are favorites to win it all again after sitting atop the state rankings all year.

But Sandy Creek’s recent tradition of excellence won’t derail Chestatee’s confidence, even as the 11th-year program enters uncharted postseason territory. Head coach Stan Luttrell knows if his team wants to upset a team like Sandy Creek (10-0-1), it has to focus on itself first.

“We respect Sandy Creek, who they are and what their tradition is,” Luttrell said. “But we do genuinely believe that this game is about us. If we play Chestatee football, and we play offense, defense and special teams like we do, then we feel like we’ll have a chance to win.”

The War Eagles (9-2) punched their ticket to the second round with a 41-13 win over Grady last week, fighting off five fumbles on their first eight plays — losing two of them — to overcome a 13-0 first-quarter deficit and cruise the rest of the way.

It wasn’t the first time turnovers hindered Chestatee this season. In a 28-21 loss to Monroe Area on Nov. 1, the War Eagles coughed up a pair of fumbles in the second half, both of which turned into touchdowns and propelled the third-ranked Purple Hurricanes to a 28-21 comeback win.

Had it not been for those turnovers, it’s a safe assumption that Chestatee could’ve held on to win the game, and a Region 8-AAAA title in the process.

So it comes by no surprise that ball protection and reducing the risk of fumbling is a high priority for the War Eagles this week, especially against a Sandy Creek team that averages 45 points per game and can easily take advantage of every possession it gets.

“In between cuts, we’re making sure that we’re keeping the ball high and tight and working on ball security,” said running back Tray Bryant, who rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns against Grady last week. “We have a couple of drills set up to work on them.”

But taking down a top-ranked team is going to take more than holding on to the football.

Sandy Creek is more than capable of dishing out big plays, thanks to a balanced attack that features a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Delvin Weems (1,156 yards, 18 touchdowns) and Eric Swinney (1,056 yards, 19 touchdowns). They combined for five scores in the Fighting Patriots’ 63-10 win over Cedartown in the first round.

When Sandy Creek wants to throw, quarterback Cole Garvin is often looking for standout receiver Demarre Kitt, whose 803-yard season helped earn him a spot at Clemson next season.

While Chestatee has faced mostly run-oriented offenses this year, its pass coverage hasn’t been completely untested. Opponents have averaged 16.6 pass attempts against the War Eagles this season, with just a 43.7 percent completion rate.

The Fighting Patriots’ offense appears to be a perfect test for the stellar Chestatee defense, with 244 rushing yards per game and a gaudy 63.5 percent completion percentage on 17.9 pass attempts per outing.

“They’re a well-rounded football team, and that’s why they’ve won so many games,” Luttrell said. “They have tradition, they’re well-coached and they play hard. It’s going to be a big challenge, but our guys have been working the whole year for this opportunity.”

The winner of Friday’s game will get a quarterfinals matchup against either Griffin or Statesboro. It’s a familiar place for Sandy Creek, which has reached the third round every year since 2009.

It’s an entirely new stage for Chestatee, but the War Eagles are still far from content with their accomplishments thus far.

“Nine wins had never been done before in the Chestatee football program, as well as winning a playoff game, and we were able to accomplish that last week,” Luttrell said. “By no means is our coaching staff or our team satisfied with just those things.

“We want more.”


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