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Johnson aiming at playoff spot in 8-AAA
Johnson High’s AJ Millwood carries the ball during the Knights’ wet Wednesday afternoon practice. The Knights will take on Stephens County this Friday for their play-in game.

OAKWOOD — When the coaches from Region 8-AAA were deciding how to figure out this year’s playoff teams, Johnson High coach Paul Friel was one of the biggest proponents of a play-in game.

Friel was one of several coaches who believed play-in games would present the four best teams from the region and prevent solid teams, like last year’s 8-2 West Forsyth, from missing the playoffs.

Little did he know that his vote to create a play-in game would lead to his Knights (2-7, 2-3 Region 8B-AAA) being one win away from reaching the Class AAA state playoffs for the first time since 2004.

“I was definitely one of the ones voting for it for the sole fact that it’s more fair,” Friel said Wednesday, two days before the No. 3 team from the south subregion travels to Toccoa to play second-seeded Stephens County (7-2, 4-1 Region 8A-AAA) in the play-in game.

This opportunity is something Friel and the rest of the coaches have talked about all year, even after the Knights started 0-5.

“We were always optimistic even when we were on a five-game losing streak,” Friel said. “We always said that it doesn’t matter because we can still make the playoffs.

“I think that’s how you survive those periods,” he added. “It just worked out that we still have a shot at it.”

A shot maybe, but most looking at this matchup don’t give the Knights much of a chance.

The Indians boast one of the most dynamic running backs in the region in sophomore Chaz Thornton, who shredded North Hall’s defense to the tune of 245 yards and two touchdowns last week. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Thornton has rushed for nearly 1,500 yards this year.

“They have a great running back and an offensive line that pushes people around,” Friel said. “We have to get tougher and we’ve worked on that all week.

“We have to be sound and we have to be smart.”

And give the ball to his own sophomore running back, Cedric Harris. Through nine games, Harris has 1,035 yards on 145 carries and 12 touchdowns. Harris was held to 84 yards in last week’s 41-0 loss to Monroe Area, which might have been a closer game if Johnson didn’t have 16 penalties.

“If we do that, we don’t have a chance,” said Friel, who will be without the services of injured tight end/defensive lineman Cody Lewallen on Friday. “If we can keep it clean like we have in our two victories, we have a shot.”

The practices this week have provided indications that could happen.

“Everybody’s practicing a lot harder because we want to go to the playoffs,” junior Joey Brooks said. “Everyone around school always tells us we’re not any good, and we’re tired of hearing that.”

A win against Stephens County might prove his peers wrong, but a loss won’t be the end of the world according to Friel.
“If we can get as much as we can out of these kids but come up short, so be it,” he said. “But if we get a couple breaks, you never know.

“The fact that we’re in the play-in game has made them excited,” he added. “These kids are so young and they work so hard, I think they deserve a shot.”

Thanks to a rule change at the beginning of the year, they have one.

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