West Hall vs. Oconee County
When: 7:30 Friday night
Where: West Hall Stadium, Oakwood
Coaches: West Hall, Tony Lotti; Oconee County, Travis Noland
Records: No. 1 Region 7-AAA West Hall (9-1); No. 4 8-AAA Oconee County (7-3)
Key players: West Hall, RB/DB Kwon Williams (5-10, 185 Jr.); WR/DB Tyquan Statham (6-2, 200 Jr.); G/OLB Ty Statham (6-2, 210 Sr.). Oconee County, QB Zeb Noland (6-3, 205 Jr.); RB/DB Christian Casey (5-7, 148 So.); LB/RB Jaleel Laguins (6-2, 210 Jr.).
The field has been painted and the lights will come on Friday night for postseason football in Oakwood.
With one milestone already secured, the West Hall Spartans are hoping to add playoff success to their Region 7-AAA title, the first in the program’s history.
That journey begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday as West Hall welcomes Oconee County to Spartan Field for a first-round Class AAA football playoff encounter. Third-year Spartans coach Tony Lotti said his players have put the region championship in the rearview mirror and have their sights on the Warriors.
“I’m hoping we can learn how to do that,” Lotti said. “The good programs do that. They learn how to take success and focus on the next week and just keep working harder.”
Friday night’s winner advances to face Jackson or Pierce County next week.
West Hall (9-1) rides a six-game winning streak into the postseason, while Oconee County (7-3) dropped its final three regular season contests after a 7-0 start. Even with that late fade, the Warriors marked a major turnaround from a 2-8 campaign in 2013, and their losses came against teams that went a combined 26-4. West Hall has already guaranteed at least a three-win improvement from its 6-5 record a season ago.
In Oconee County, Lotti sees a well-disciplined team under the direction of a strong coach in Travis Noland, who is 80-33 overall and in his first season with the Warriors after nine years at the helm of the Stephens County program.
Quarterback Zeb Noland paces the Warriors offense, with 1,000-yard rusher Christian Casey and receiver Chase Major also major contributors.
“They’re big up front,” Lotti said. “Their quarterback’s very good. He can hurt you with the arm or he can get loose. Those guys are kind of hard to defend.
“So we’re just going to have to see if we can play assignment football and make some plays when we need to make some plays.”
Another impact player for the Warriors is 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker/running back Jaleel Laguins, who has offers from Auburn, Georgia and Florida, among others, according to 247Sports.
Travis Noland said his players have to focus on playing their game, but he said West Hall is as good as anybody Oconee County has played. That’s high praise considering the Warriors have taken on Jefferson (10-0) and Hart County (9-1), the top two seeds from Region 8-AAA.
“They have a great football team,” he said. “They have a really good defense, and they score a lot of points. It’s a big challenge for us.”
Oconee County is making its first postseason appearance since 2008, when it suffered a 49-21 first-round loss to Gainesville in the Class AAA bracket.
Lotti knows all about teams being considered the favorite for playoff contests. He keeps reminding his players of the 2013 first round. A team making its first playoff appearance since 2002, West Hall didn’t garner confidence from outside observers before taking on unbeaten Cartersville. Then the Spartans came up just short as a potential winning field goal missed on the final play in a 28-26 loss.
“There’s no down time,” Lotti said. “You lose, you go home. It’s that simple. So we’ll see. We’re in a little uncharted territory, but we’ll see how we respond to it.”
West Hall is making its sixth playoff appearance overall and is in the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since its trio of playoff trips from 2000-02.
Spartans middle linebacker and fullback Cameron Millsap is excited for the chance to be at home in the postseason.
“We’re looking forward to a big night, a great atmosphere,” Millsap said. “We’re looking for a victory.”
Millsap said the Warriors provide a strong challenge.
“They’re a talented team,” Millsap said. “But I know if we stay disciplined and handle our responsibilities each and every play, we’ll come out on top.”
As West Hall players exited the stadium Thursday night, the fresh paint on the field signified that football season is still going. The Spartans hope that will still be true for their program at night’s end Friday.
“We’ve worked very hard here to try to create some opportunities for us. And now we have that opportunity,” Lotti said. “So we’re going to have to see how we can react and what we can do with that opportunity. It’s been a long time for the folks here, and I’m just happy for our community and our student body and faculty and for my kids.”
Along with the opportunity comes a simple message from Lotti to his players.
“Understand that every team that’s playing right now is good, and every team can get beat,” Lotti said. “You better bring your ‘A’ game or your season’s going to be over.”