West Hall High football coach Tony Lotti vividly remembers how smoothly the week of preparation went.
There were no players skipping practice, no emails from teachers detailing misbehavior in class or poor grades, no off-the-field distractions cluttering the team’s focus as it braced for last year’s first-round playoff game at eighth-ranked Troup.
“We were so dialed in that week,” Lotti said. “We had a good prep week, and there was nothing for me to address. Everybody was even out on the field before practice started, ready to go.”
It resulted in an upset win and second-round playoff appearance, achievements West Hall hopes to replicate Friday night.
The No. 4 seed Spartans are seeking to spring another stunner when they open the Class 4A state tournament against top-seeded St. Pius X in Atlanta. A win would send them to the second round — the furthest West Hall (5-5) has ever advanced — for just the third time in school history.
“It helps us a lot as far as our confidence,” senior offensive lineman Josh Taylor said of last year’s playoff win. “But we can’t look at last year and say we’re guaranteed to pull something like that off again. Every year is different, and every team is different.”
That falls right in line with one of Lotti’s core tenets: “The program doesn’t change, but the teams do.”
A near constant for his program is being a tough out in the playoffs.
After missing the tournament in their first season under Lotti in 2012, the Spartans nearly pulled off a huge upset against undefeated and top-seeded Cartersville the following year. Their game-winning field goal attempt went just wide in the waning seconds, leading to a 28-26 loss.
West Hall suffered a four-point defeat in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, this time serving as the No. 1 seed getting toppled, before finally breaking through against Troup last season. Defensive back Ashun Favorite intercepted four passes, including the clincher in the final minute of a 24-21 victory.
“It showed me that we didn’t get rattled in tight situations,” Lotti said. “We played hard and created opportunities for ourselves, and then let the chips fall where they may. That’s how we had been in close games with other teams in the first round of the playoffs in the past.”
As the Spartans try to reapply that formula against St. Pius (5-5), Lotti said he won’t harp too much on last year’s upset victory. The coach might reference a play here and there, but it’s only to prevent his team from repeating mistakes.
The keys to slaying a giant on the football field, in Lotti’s mind, are fairly straightforward — his team must prepare well, play hard and catch a break or two along the way.
“Sometimes you get that perfect storm,” the sixth-year coach said. “I talked to our guys and told them that every year it seems like a No. 4 seed knocks off a No. 1 seed. It was even us a few years back when we drew a tough seed from a really tough region.
“You never know. That’s why they make you line up and play.”
West Hall believes it can be that fourth-seeded team to stun a region champion, especially after a rigorous regular season.
Eight of the Spartans’ 10 opponents qualified for the playoffs, including Class 2A’s No. 5 Rabun County. They finished the regular season with a brutal stretch against No. 4 Marist, seven-win White County and No. 7 Blessed Trinity, a fitting tuneup for the types of teams they’ll face in the playoffs.
“It shows us that we can play with teams that might be better than us or have better athletes than us,” sophomore quarterback Michael Thompson said. “We know we can compete with them and play on their level.”
St. Pius faced a challenging schedule, as well, particularly in non-region play. Benedictine and Greater Atlanta Christian — both top-two teams in their respective classes — comprised the slate alongside Marist, Blessed Trinity and Class 6A Lanier.
The Golden Lions lost all five games before going undefeated in region play, knocking off No. 9 Jefferson 43-29 en route to the region title. With St. Pius rolling into the playoffs, Lotti said his kids must play “disciplined, assignment football” against its triple-option attack.
It’ll be a stout task for West Hall, which is in the midst of an unprecedented run of playoff success.
Lotti has taken the Spartans to the state tournament for five straight years. Prior to its 2013 appearance, the program had reached the postseason only four times since the school opened in 1988.
“When I first got here, the senior class was in kindergarten the last time West Hall had made the playoffs,” Lotti said. “And now this class knows nothing but going to the playoffs. Changing the mentality of the program and our belief system was important.”
His efforts have already yielded one playoff upset. On Friday, West Hall can make it two in a row.