West Hall at Johnson
When: 7:30 tonight
Coaches: West Hall, Tony Lotti; Johnson, Jason Roquemore
Records: West Hall (0-0); Johnson (0-1)
Key players: West Hall, DB/RB Tyquan Statham (6-2, 200 Jr.), RB/DB Kwon Williams (6-0, 185 Jr.) ; Johnson, OL/DL Donyae Brown (5-11, 220 Sr.), QB Chase Sims (6-0, 190 Sr.)
Of all the things Chase Sims remembers from the Battle of Oakwood last year, his first game as a member of Johnson’s varsity roster, it was the noise that stuck with him the most.
On an oppressively hot August night, Sims was on clipboard duty as the Knights backup quarterback in the 2013 season opener as rival West Hall soundly beat the visitors 35-0 in front of a packed Spartan Field.
The chance to regain school pride, in front of Johnson’s own fans, is an opportunity Sims can’t wait to be a part of — this time, from under center.
“I remember the hits were loud on both sides of the ball,” Sims said. “It was fast-paced, I was new to varsity ... I just remember it being a war.
“I thought their atmosphere was great. They had a loud crowd and that helped them a lot. I’m hoping this year, the crowd will be on our side and we can have that advantage.”
The Spartans will travel just five miles across I-985 to meet Johnson for their season opener tonight. Meanwhile, Johnson (0-1) is hoping to rebound from a 31-3 loss away to Madison County last week.
West Hall leads the all-time series 12-7-1, dating back to the first rivalry game in 1994, and has won two of the last three games against the Knights. The Spartans, led by third-year head coach Tony Lotti, achieved their first winning season in more a decade last year after beating their rivals, en route to the team’s first playoff appearance since 2002.
At a school pep rally on Thursday, Lotti said he told the student body to come out en masse for the game.
“A lot of these guys, both Johnson and West Hall, they’ve gone to the same churches, the same grocery stores, they know each other,” he said. “It makes for a good little rivalry and it’s good for the community to see.”
Both teams held short walkthrough practices Thursday afternoon in preparation for today’s game. Johnson coach Jason Roquemore has been preaching fundamentals to his team ever since the season-opening loss. Roquemore said there were too many blown assignments on the offensive line against Madison County, while he also needed to improve on his secondary defenders tackling in space.
The Knights gave up 151 passing yards and two passing touchdowns last week.
Historically, the Battle of Oakwood has resulted in offensive firepower. The last six rivalry games have seen the two teams combine for an average of 65 points, including a 56-55 shootout in 2008.
But Lotti has no desire to see a high-scoring game, he said. He’ll prefer to let his defense make the difference, under first-year defensive coordinator Jay Reid. Reid was a tight end at Georgia Tech from 2001-2005.
“I think it’ll be a pretty defensive-minded game,” Lotti said after noting that his team committed four turnovers in a recent scrimmage against Jefferson. “I know our defense has been preparing for it. I can tell you this, you’ll see two well-coached teams that’ll play hard. It’ll come down to whoever makes the fewest amount of mistakes.”
Roquemore said he hasn’t had to provide any words of motivation to his team ahead of the game. The Knights have been preparing for it since January, all throughout offseason workouts. It’ll take more than a loss to get the Knights down, according to Roquemore, who are looking for consistency to get their season back on track.
“It’s been a heated rivalry before I got here and it’ll be a heated rivalry when I’m gone,” he said. “Our kids are resilient and they’ve worked their tails off. It’s amazing how passionate both communities are about this football game.”
Sims can attest to that. He said West Hall and Johnson “have never liked each other,” and that he’s been ingrained in the competition since middle school.
He expects the Knights’ offense to come out much more focused than last week and use all 11 players to make sure its triple option can be effective.
“We think our athletes match up to their athletes and now we’ve got to go out there and compete,” Sims said.
“It’s been a long road to get here and now it’s time.”