It was evident earlier this summer that the senior group of East Hall High’s football team had something to prove.
What started as an upperclassmen-led conversation of putting a disappointing 2016 campaign in the rear-view mirror has built into an opportunity for the seniors to finish their varsity careers on a high note — and do so in the playoffs.
With two weeks left on the docket, the stakes will be high for the Vikings (5-3, 2-2 Region 7-3A) in their final regular-season home game against North Hall at 7:30 p.m. tonight at East Hall Stadium in Gainesville. The winner will be on track to claim the region’s No. 3 playoff seed.
“(The seniors) were just as upset about last year as anybody, and they’re the ones who have led this team to where we are right now,” East Hall coach Bryan Gray said.
North Hall (3-6, 3-2) is already assured of a playoff spot.
East Hall missed the postseason last year after making it in 2014 and 2015. It was also the team’s first losing campaign in six seasons, finishing 3-7 and sixth in the region.
But after a loss to Class 6A Habersham Central in Week 1, the Vikings got on a roll to kickstart 2017. They shattered their win total from the previous year on a five-game win streak, including a 2-0 start to region play.
But the 2016 trend of falling short late in games, especially in region play, came to life in the last two weeks for Gray’s team.
Last week, the Vikings fell short against Dawson County when Austin Parker was picked off in the end zone as time expired. That came after East Hall recovered an onside kick and drove inside the Tigers’ 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining. And the week prior, the Vikings were shut out by No. 2 Greater Atlanta Christian.
“Sometimes who you play makes a big difference,” Gray said. “GAC has gotta be the best team in the state (in Class 3A), and Dawson (County) has probably been a top-10 team in the state. You know, taking Dawson at the last second, we moved the ball well and did some good things. We just gotta finish the game.”
The Vikings, who trail North Hall, Dawson County and Greater Atlanta Christian in the region standings, will need a win tonight to claim the third spot.
Of course, it helps to have senior quarterback Austin Parker steering the ship. The returning Times’ Player of the Year is just 258 yards shy of the 3,000-yard passing mark after completing 63 percent of his throws for 30 touchdowns and only five interceptions, adding another 454 yards and five scores on the ground.
It continues to be no surprise to Trojans coach David Bishop that the Vikings’ talents are stretched across the field in a high-powered spread attack. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound Cambren Harrison (1,272 total yards, 14 rushing touchdowns) nixed any question marks East Hall may have had at running back this year, breaking onto the scene by Week 2 as the Vikings’ workhorse.
Senior wideout Sedrion Morse is also pacing the team with 888 receiving yards and 13 scores.
“We know that (Austin) is pretty dang good ... with the ball in his hands, whether he’s scrambling or whether he’s throwing it,” Bishop said. “For us, we gotta make sure our pass-rush lanes are where they need to be on defense, and that when we chase and sprint out we’re stacked properly, or else he’s gonna hurt us. We know how good he can be.
“They don’t have any holes (on offense), to be honest with you.”
But don’t count out Bishop’s Trojans either. After staring 0-5, North Hall changed gears to go 3-2 in region play and clinch a playoff bid.
“They’ve probably made as much improvement as anybody from Game 1 to now,” Gray said. “They’ve got great coaches, and coach Bishop has done a fabulous job.”
North Hall’s young but opportunistic defense has especially captured the attention of East Hall’s coach.
“They’ve got to be leading, at least second behind GAC, in interceptions in our region,” Gray added. “Their kids are making plays, and they’re just so well disciplined. ... Rarely do they make mistakes, and that’s a difficult type of team to play.”
The Trojans put up 55 points in the first two weeks of October behind their Wing-T attack paced by a vast committee-run backfield. With the playmaking abilities of quarterback David Seavey (676 passing yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions) off play-action, North Hall appears to be gaining steam at the right time.
Also, the team’s ability to take good care of the football has Bishop enthused.
“Our kids, one of the things is they stayed on the script we told them to deal with, which is, ‘Hey, get better every week, don’t listen to what people have to say. If you guys just stick to the plan, we’ll be OK. We’ll be in the playoffs,’” Bishop said. “And for me as a coach, that makes you proud that your kids have worked that hard and believed in the plan. You hear it, and you see in the record and then you hear your coaches tell you, ‘Just trust us.’ They’ve done that.
“That’s exciting for me and our coaches that they’re behind you.”