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Poor start hasn't derailed Johnson's season
Johnson High coach Paul Friel keeps and eye on his linemen during the Knights’ Tuesday afternoon practice. The Knights will be on the road this Friday to take on Monroe Area.

Johnson at Monroe Area

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Hurricanes Stadium, Monroe

Records: Johnson (2-6, 2-2 Region 8B-AAA); Monroe Area (7-1, 3-1)

Admission: $7

OAKWOOD — As much as it might hurt to do, the Johnson High Knights should probably send a thank you to West Hall, their crosstown rivals.

Mired in an 0-5 start and fresh off a 62-20 loss to Gainesville, the Knights kept their drive, prepared in practice and didn’t let the record define who they were. A win over West Hall was more important than that.

“We never gave up, even if our record showed we were 0-5,” senior David Harkins said. “We never backed down, and if you’d seen us practice, you wouldn’t have thought we were 0-5.”

So the Knights (2-6, 2-2 Region 8B-AAA) went out and defeated the Spartans on a late touchdown from Luke Gilleland to A.J. Millwood that successfully claimed rights to their city, and proved they could win.

Or did they?

Any momentum they had quickly evaporated the following week when the Knights gave Walnut Grove its first varsity football win in school history. Despite the disappointing loss, Johnson coach Paul Friel was pleased to see his players remember what it felt like to win and rally from a 28-point halftime deficit to tie the game 35-35 late in the fourth quarter. Walnut Grove won on a 40-yard touchdown pass minutes later.

“It was that first half,” said Johnson coach Paul Friel, whose team lost 42-35. “I don’t know if it was the long ride or we fell asleep, but we came out on fire in the second half.”

That intensity was on display last week when Johnson beat Oconee County, 40-27, a win that put it third in the subregion standings and in a prime position to compete for a spot in the state playoffs. The Knights play at second-place Monroe Area (7-1, 3-1) on Friday and would earn the No. 2 seed from the subregion if they win. Johnson could still earn a spot in the region play-in game Nov. 5 with a loss and an Oconee County win over Walnut Grove, which has the chance to give the Knights another disappointing loss.

“We’d already be in the play-in game if we beat Walnut Grove,” Friel said. “But now, we have to fight like crazy. Oconee County could help us, but you don’t want to sit back and wait on that.”

The players wouldn’t want to do that anyway. After all, this is a team that rallied just to take down their rivals, and Friday’s game is much more important than that.

“We’re going to go out there on fire because we have a chance to make school history,” Harkins said. “We’ve been to the playoffs before, but we’ve never won a playoff game.”

Harkins knows his history. The Knights have gone 13-36-1 since their last playoff appearance in 2004 and are 0-5 in playoff games dating back to 1958.

When Friel thinks about how this team has a chance to at least play for a spot in the playoffs, it surprises him and makes him more anxious for it to happen.

“It’s pretty big because of the simple fact I’d be happy for these kids and the way they’ve grown,” Friel said. “To have a shot to be in the top 6 is a huge reward for a bunch of young guys that really didn’t have that much of a chance to achieve.

“If we don’t win, so be it,” he added. “ We’ll rebuild and get ready for next year. But if we do achieve that, I think it goes a long way.”

Especially considering the Knights start only three seniors, and their most productive offensive player is sophomore Cedric Harris, who scored four touchdowns in the win over the Warriors last week and is approaching 1,000 yards on the season.

Friel knows Harris might have a hard time finding running room against the Purple Hurricanes and their massive defensive front, but focusing on the opposition isn’t how his team got here in the first place.

“They’re a very good team,” Friel said of Monroe Area, which has held its opponents to seven points or less in every game except a 49-17 loss to Gainesville. “They have athletes and a great defense, but if we talk about that the whole time, we’ll be in trouble, we’ll scare ourselves.

“If we can go out there Friday and control the ball and stop them on some drives, then we’ll be alright,” he added. “That’s all we can focus on.”

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