East Hall at Hart County
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Pete Herndon Stadium, Hartwell
Coaches: East Hall, Bryan Gray; Hart County, William DeVane
Records: No. 3 Region 7-AAA East Hall (6-4); No. 2 Region 8-AAA Hart County (9-1)
Key players: East Hall, QB/DB Devin Watson (5-11, 181 Sr.); WR/P Junior Lee (6-0, 205 Sr.); MLB/TE Ronnie Peebles (5-11, 190 Sr.). Hart County, QB Cameron Fouch (6-0, 180 Sr.); RB/DB Keenan Dillon (5-7, 172 Sr.); WR Anthony Turner (6-4, 200 Jr.).
A chilly wind swirled around East Hall coach Bryan Gray as he laid out his team’s mission Friday night at Hart County.
Considering the bumpy road the Vikings have taken to get to their first playoff berth since 2005, few cliches could be more apt.
“We’ve got to go out and shock the world,” he said, watching while his team wrapped up one final practice session Thursday afternoon. “We’ve got the chance to shock the world and get out there to play our game. We’ll have fun, that’s what we emphasized.”
Temperatures are expected to dip into the low 30s after kickoff Friday night in Hartwell. Gray decided to cancel the typical Thursday film session to put his team back on the field to give the players a good idea of the conditions they will feel at Pete Herndon Stadium.
The Vikings will need every advantage they can get to pull off an upset over a Bulldogs team (9-1, No. 2 Region 8-AAA) that won nine straight games before a narrow loss to No. 5 Jefferson in the regular season finale.
East Hall (6-4, No. 3 Region 7-AAA) won its final four games of the regular season to ensure it would see a playoff game for the first time in nine years, but it will take a monumental effort to stick around for the second round.
“They bring a lot of speed, and they have a lot of skill on both sides of the ball,” defensive end Alan Silva said of Hart County. “But I’m pretty sure that with the way we play, we’ll do well against them.”
The Bulldogs (37.9 points per game) boast a fairly balanced attack, but have scored 27 rushing touchdowns through nine different running backs. The pick of the bunch is senior Keenan Dillon (514 rushing yards on 79 carries, 7 touchdowns) who scored one of Hart County’s two touchdowns in last week’s region title decider.
Meanwhile, quarterback Cameron Fouch (2,148 yards passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 8 interceptions) provides the Bulldogs with a solid passing threat. Fouch has passed for more than 150 yards in all but one game (a 74-12 hammering of Oglethorpe County on Sept. 19).
Gray has kept much of his focus on the Bulldogs’ defensive line, which he called “probably the best in the state.” The East Hall offensive line will need to slow down Hart County’s pass rush to give senior quarterback Devin Watson a chance to make plays.
“Devin’s getting healthier and getting better,” Gray said, “and I think the key to getting back this season is having our offensive line come back. There’s a lot of our offensive line who have had to jell and that brings more confidence. You need 80 kids to be successful.”
Amid a bevy of injuries early in the season, East Hall wrestled its way back into playoff contention after dropping two of its first three games.
Watson (1,775 passing yards, 13 touchdowns) has been the offensive lynchpin for the Vikings this season. He also leads East Hall in rushing yards (863), and has scored more touchdowns on the ground (12) than the rest of the team combined.
Ronnie Peebles (63 solo tackles) is the team’s main defensive standout, and will have to stay busy to keep Fouch and Dillon’s impact to a minimum.
The Bulldogs have scored 40 or more points six times so far this season. In their four losses, the Vikings have averaged 18 points per game.
“We’re going to run our offense against that defense that they have, and adjust to the players that they have,” said wide receiver Junior Lee (473 receiving yards, four touchdowns). “We’ll do what we know and target their weaknesses. They play a lot of man coverage, and there are ways we can try to exploit that.”
After three consecutive 5-5 seasons, Silva said the team was “bored” of missing out on the playoffs each year. He said many of the starters would schedule workouts outside of the official team practices to get stronger and faster ahead of the season.
Even under freezing conditions, the Vikings will be able to put every hour of hard work to use against arguably its most dangerous opponent yet.
For some, the idea of winning is about redemption for a slow start.
“Some people in the community didn’t think we could do this,” Lee said. “So we’ll try to shock them.”
“We’re one of those teams that people never thought could be in the postseason,” Silva added. “But we’ve been working hard and we should have beat the teams by more than we did. But we’d rather have an ugly win than a pretty loss.”
Hart County and East Hall haven’t played each other since 1999. The Bulldogs hold a 7-1 series advantage dating back to 1964.
The winner advances to face the Central/Cook County winner on Nov. 21.