Buford at West Hall
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Spartan Field, Oakwood
Coaches: Buford, Jess Simpson; West Hall, Tony Lotti
Records: Buford (4-0, 1-0 Region 7-AAA); West Hall, (4-1, 2-0)
Key Players: Buford, LB Korie Rogers (6-2, 215 Sr.); DB/RB Thomas Wilson (5-11, 185 Sr.); RB/LB Joshua Thomas (6-0, 200 Jr.). West Hall, RB Kwon Williams (6-0, 185 So.); TE/DE Hunter Atkinson (6-6, 250 Sr.); QB Zach English (5-10, 180 Sr.).
When he’s asked about his team’s improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, West Hall’s Tony Lotti says it’s all part of the plan that he had when he took the head coaching position in Oakwood.
That plan was to get West Hall on track, back in winning form and back to being a respectable program.
After struggling in the first season under Lotti, West Hall’s results have been much better this season.
The Spartans have already won twice as many games (4) than they did all of last season (2), and opposing teams have started to take notice.
“I think they are easily the most improved team in our region,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “They might be one of the most improved teams in AAA and maybe across the state. They just have a lot of good players and they are very well coached. They look like a dangerous football team.”
Friday will be the largest indication as to how far the Spartans have come in the second season under Lotti, when they host Simpson and the top-ranked Buford Wolves (4-0) in Oakwood.
“Well, they’re the defending state champions and, in my opinion, until someone knocks them off, that is who they are,” Lotti said. “They have a great program over there and I know they are going to come in here and be ready to play. That is what championship teams do, and our team is looking forward to coming in there and giving it our best effort.”
The improvement for West Hall is clearly noticable this season. The Spartans are off to their best start since 2002 and enter tonight riding a three-game winning streak. The Spartans are averaging 39 points per game so far this season, and they’ve scored at least 48 points in each of the last three contests.
Last season, they scored more than 30 just once.
That much improvement from a year ago has instilled some confidence in a West Hall team that was blown out by Buford, 61-0, in 2012.
And while the task of knocking off the reigning state champion Wolves is daunting, it isn’t impossible.
“That would be incredible,” senior tight end Hunter Atkinson said. “Coming off two wins in normal seasons, and coming off my freshman season with no wins, to beat Buford would be a huge deal, especially on our homecoming.
“Last year we went in not knowing what to expect and they come out and they dress a lot of people and they are all big. Then you realize they are in the locker room and they put on the uniform just like us. We have a chance. Just go out there and give it all we have.”
One reason for the improvement at West Hall, says Lotti, is credited to the players buying into the head coach’s plan. Part of the plan is focusing on the next play and not looking into the past or too far into the future.
The Spartans hope to use that philosophy tonight, even if Buford grabs an early lead.
“In the event that happens, we are going to stick with our gameplan,” Lotti said. “We are going to go for the full time. And understanding how to handle those types of situations, I think my guys know, ‘Hey, what we sold out for was the whole 48 minutes. We are not even going to look at the scoreboard.’”
While West Hall is off to a good start this season, so is Buford. The Wolves are undefeated, winning games by an average of 47.2 points, and are the front-runners to win the region and state championships.
The Wolves have recorded back-to-back 63-0 victories since holding Gainesville and its star quarterback, Deshaun Watson, to just 14 points back on Sept. 6.
Last week, the Wolves allowed just one first down in their shutout win over Banks County, which came as a result of a Buford penalty.
Simpson admitted tonight will be the Wolves’ toughest contest since their battle with the Red Elephants in Gainesville.
“The past couple of times out, we have kind of overmatched our competition,” Simpson said. “ ... We haven’t seen anyone in a month that looks like this.”
Tonight’s game will feature a pair of run-first offenses that can dab into the passing game rather nicely.
In the passing game for the Wolves, quarterback Taylor Mitchell and Montgomery VanGorder are combining to complete 72 percent of their passes for 582 yards with six touchdowns.
Much like Buford, West Hall’s key to success this season has been its ability to run the football, largely with sophomores Tyquan Statham and Kwon Williams. In its only loss of the season — a 15-14 defeat at Chestatee — West Hall failed to rush for 100 yards. In the four wins, the Spartans have blown well past the 100-yard rushing mark.
Williams leads the team with 469 yards rushing and eight touchdowns this season, and Statham (210 yards rushing and three touchdowns) has also shown the ability to be a big playmaker for the Spartans.
Both runners have proven they are capable of racking up large chunks of yards, as both are averaging over 12 yards per carry, led by Williams’ massive 18.8-yard average.
But, can the Spartans run the football effectively tonight against the stingy Buford defense?
“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure we can keep them from getting outside,” Simpson said of West Hall’s sophomore backs. “They are fast and they have been running around most folks.”
“I’ve watched so much film on them, they have a phenomenal defense,” Lotti said. “The team speed is probably the thing that always jumps out at me. I sure hope we can run the football on them, because we are going to need to. But we are looking at angles and things like that and our discipline.”
If the running game is limited, the Spartans can rely on an efficient passing attack, led by quarterback Zach English. The senior is completing 64.8 percent of his passes for 465 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions this season. His main target is Atkinson, who has 21 catches for 267 yards and six touchdowns.
“The past (few games), I’m 6-5 and I am going against 6-foot corners and I am pretty much faster than most of them,” Atkinson said. “But this is going to be a real challenge, (Buford defenders) are the same height as me, they’re quicker than me. I’m really going to have to try and go get the ball.”
One thing is for certain, win or lose, the Spartans have an opportunity to show how far they’ve come since last season’s loss to the Wolves.
It was a loss that eventually turned to a win for West Hall — bringing the final record to 3-7 — as Buford later forfeited the victory for playing an ineligible athlete.