West Hall at North Hall
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Brickyard, Gainesville
Coaches: West Hall, Tony Lotti; North Hall, Bob Christmas
Records: West Hall (5-2, 3-1 Region 7-AAA); North Hall (6-1, 3-1)
Key players: West Hall, QB Zach English (5-10, 180 Sr.); TE/DE Hunter Atkinson (6-6, 250 Sr.); RB/DB Kwon Williams (6-0, 185 So.). North Hall, QB Andrew Smith (5-7, 150 Sr.); RB Zac Little (5-9, 190 Sr.); OL/DL Thomas Marchman (6-4, 260 Sr.).
West Hall is beginning to look familiar to North Hall coach Bob Christmas.
The Spartans remind him a lot of his own Trojans and the turnaround they made from 2001 to 2002, bouncing back from a 1-9 season — and decades of overall struggles — to deliver an 8-3 campaign that kick-started the elevation of the program to the state-ranked Class AAA force it is today.
“West Hall has some very good players, and even last year you could tell it was there,” Christmas said. “They just had to put it all together. What they’re doing this year, I really expected it.”
Now he just has to make sure West Hall doesn’t win.
The Spartans (5-2, 3-1 Region 7-AAA), one the area’s most-improved teams after going 3-7 a season ago, have a prime opportunity to move up in the region standings and take a big step toward earning home-field advantage in the postseason with a win over No. 8 North Hall on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Trojans (6-1, 3-1) are looking to recover from last week’s 21-7 upset loss to White County and keep themselves in the hunt for home field advantage. A loss to West Hall would all but end those hopes.
“Our players are upset with themselves about how that game played out,” Christmas said. “They don’t feel like they played like they’re capable of playing. I think they’re really determined to play better this Friday.”
North Hall was held to season lows in points (7) and total yardage (359) after struggling to produce offensively against an adjusted White County defense. The Warriors switched to a 5-3 formation and crowded the box to slow the Trojans’ wishbone-based running game.
As a result, Christmas has prepared his team to see the 5-3 again this week, tweaking the offense to work around the possibility of an extra defender sliding up near the line of scrimmage.
“We’re expecting to see a 5-3 every game from here on out,” Christmas said. “We have worked considerably this week against someone bringing a safety down into the box, or bringing an extra linebacker in there, because I fully expect people to do that to us.”
West Hall coach Tony Lotti, whose team utilizes multiple defensive formations, isn’t completely sold on the 5-3 defense being the definitive key to beating North Hall.
“When you look at stuff like that, you have to factor in personnel,” Lotti said. “Just because one team can be successful with it, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be the most successful going that route with your kids.
“We study a lot of film and try to put our kids in the best situation possible.”
His coaching staff did just that last week in a 27-7 win over East Hall. Typically powered by big plays from speedy running backs Kwon Williams and Tyquan Statham, West Hall instead shined defensively, holding the Vikings without a first down until the fourth quarter.
The victory gave the Spartans their best record since 2008, and they can secure their first winning record since 2002 with a win Friday.
“For us, it’s another test to see how we can respond against one of the best programs in the state,” Lotti said. “North Hall is ranked eighth in the state. It’s phenomenal what they’ve done there and what they continue to do, and I think they’re going to be pretty motivated when they come out.”
Lotti came to Oakwood with a three-year plan for bringing relevance back to West Hall, which had endured a decade of struggles between four coaches before he had arrived.
Even with just 10 seniors and fairly young starting lineup, the plan is clearly working as formulated.
“Coach Lotti says it was a three-year (plan), and that left us seniors out of it,” Lineman Eric Camacho said. “So we came out this year, and in the summer we said ‘we have to play hard this year.’
“North Hall is one of those teams you get to match yourself up against. They’re ranked in the state. We’re not, but we can play.”
For Lotti’s plan, it’s the perfect statement game that would surely confirm West Hall’s status as a Region 7-AAA contender.
Christmas is well aware of that.
“I think that just watching them play on film, I think they play really hard,” Christmas said. “I think there’s a lot of desire to be a top-run team. You have to give coach Lotti the credit in instilling that in those players.”