Stephens County at Chestatee
When: 7:30 Friday
Where: War Eagle Stadium
Coaches: Stephens County, Travis Noland; Chestatee, Stan Luttrell
Records: Stephens County (3-1, 1-0 Region 8-AAAA); Chestatee, (2-1, 1-0 Region 8-AAAA)
Key Players: Stephens County, OL Ben Cleveland (6-7, 320 So.); OL Thomas Lowery (6-3, 220 Sr.); WR/DB Will Smith (5-10, 152 Sr.). Chestatee, TE/DL Khalil Cantrell (5-10, 260 Sr.); RB Zac Cheshire (5-7, 140 Sr.); QB Wyatt Burgess (5-11, 155 Sr.).
Chestatee’s current two-game winning streak and 2-1 record to start the season hasn’t come without arduous responsibilities for its players.
The War Eagles had to shrug off losing one of their key players in the preseason, then pull out a pair of second-half comeback victories the past two games. And they’re far from done.
On Friday, they play a game that could end up being a major influence in painting the Region 8-AAAA playoff picture — a showdown with postseason perennial Stephens County, which finished in third place in the region a year ago, one spot behind Chestatee.
“I think every region game is a big game, because of everything riding on it with the playoff seeding,” War Eagles coach Stan Luttrell said. “In our region, I think every team has improved and it’s going to be an exciting game (tonight).”
Last season, Chestatee’s 24-20 win over Stephens County gave the War Eagles a leg up in the standings and home field advantage in the first round of the state playoffs. It marked their first-ever win over the Indians.
Luttrell says Region 8-AAAA has improved greatly since then, when the top four playoff teams were relatively clear-cut above the rest of the region long before the postseason began. This year isn’t quite the same case, with all four teams once again in contention, plus the addition of up-and-coming Lanier atop the standings following their 4-0 start with several blowout wins.
It only makes every region game that much more important, and Chestatee can’t afford to drop one. Especially against a fellow playoff contender.
“Any game on a Friday night is important, but a region game is even more important,” Luttrell said. “Lanier was a good football team, and a lot of people didn’t realize that. We had to come from behind and end up beating them in overtime to come away with a victory here at home last year.”
For the War Eagles’ defensive line, it’s a test of overcoming a sizable opponent in the trenches.
Anchoring the Stephens County offensive line is left tackle Ben Cleveland, who at 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds is easily one of the largest linemen Chestatee will face this season.
The sophomore, who already has offers from several Division-I colleges, has a seven-inch and 70-pound size advantage over War Eagles defensive end Rob Minor, who will line up with him for most of the night.
“He definitely has the physical tools and he’s a great player,” Minor said. “But all we have to do is practice hard, and we’ll win.”
Minor briefly faced Cleveland during last year’s game, but was hindered by a knee injury at the time. This season, he and teammate Cody Humphries will work together to keep Cleveland’s presence minimized.
“We have to be tough mentally, and don’t be afraid to go up against anybody bigger than you,” Humphries said. “Just get it done.”
Luttrell isn’t concerned about the disparity in size, but rather executing properly where Stephens County’s weaknesses lie instead.
“We don’t really spend a whole lot of time talking about individuals on the other team,” Luttrell said. “We can’t control that we’ll be lining up against someone who’s 6-7 and that big, or someone in the backfield or wherever the star player is. We really try to focus on what we can control, and what we can control (tonight) is getting 11 hats to the ball on defense, winning the line of scrimmage on the offensive line and just executing on special teams.”
Chestatee can, and often does, control its running game extremely well, thanks to the recent efforts of breakthrough standout Zac Cheshire.
The 5-7, 140-pound senior has become the War Eagles’ primary running threat after projected starter A.J. Sijiye was sidelined for the season with a torn ACL. The senior has rushed 302 yards and four touchdowns this year, and exploded for a 158-yard performance against Eastside last week.
Cheshire has picked up assistance from Blake Buffington (168 yards, 2 TDs) and Tray Bryant (158 yards, 2 TDs). Chestatee is averaging 286 rushing yards per game.
“I definitely feel I like need to help my team win, but at the same time I know there are tons of other backs that can also get the job done,” Cheshire said. “At the time, we weren’t sure who the starters were going to be, but whenever (Sijiye) went down, it was an opportunity for us to step up and fill his role.”
The War Eagles appear to be doing just fine without Sijiye, who came off his crutches this week. And they might be only getting better, as their rushing totals have improved each game this season.
“That’s just a product of our coaching staff and of our program,” Luttrell said. “The guys are ready, and there are several guys that can get it done. (Cheshire) has definitely risen to the top, and really taken advantage of his opportunities.”