About an hour before kickoff, West Hall High football coach Tony Lotti said the key to Friday night’s game would be tackling explosive Chestatee High running back Nick Lyles.
His Spartans were more than up to the task few teams have accomplished this season.
West Hall’s defense held Lyles, a 2,000-yard rusher for his career and member of The Times’ Elite 11, to just 70 yards and no touchdowns on the ground in a 28-14 win to open Region 7-4A play at Spartan Field in Oakwood.
Lyles did catch a 97-yard score in the game’s closing minutes, but the Spartans (5-2, 1-0 region) made sure his 4 yards per carry were well below his season average.
“(Defensive coordinator David Wagner) and his staff had a really good game plan for this week, and the kids responded and executed,” Lotti said. “With (Lyles’) big play at the end, that’s just their offense. I told our kids all week (Chestatee) could score at any time with the athletes they have, especially Lyles.”
West Hall totaled five tackles for loss, including three sacks by as many different players, and four takeaways while holding the high-powered War Eagles (4-3, 0-1) to their second-lowest scoring output this year.
“It was all teamwork,” said Spartans senior defensive lineman Damien Fouts, who had a forced fumble and tackle for loss. “All night, we were trying to get 11 hats to the football.”
Chestatee coach Shaun Conley said he anticipated West Hall to center its defensive game plan around stopping Lyles. The War Eagles threw 19 passes, most of them deep balls, in an attempt to counteract the Spartans’ strategy, but they completed only eight and frequently found themselves in third-and-long situations.
“We missed some opportunities with the long ball,” Conley said. “We couldn’t connect and were out of sync. … We just weren’t prepared to play tonight, and that falls on me. But we’ll keep fighting and get things turned around in region play.”
The Spartans were so focused on stopping Lyles, they tackled him on the 1-yard line to foil a trick play on the game’s opening kickoff.
Then West Hall sophomore quarterback Michael Thompson opened the scoring on his team’s first possession, picking up 64 of his 147 rushing yards on a third-down draw before hitting senior running back Cooper Adams for a 12-yard touchdown.
Fouts made a momentum-shifting play on the next drive, stripping the ball away to set up senior Austin Sinclair’s 31-yard scoring scamper.
“Everybody was wrapping (the ballcarrier) up, and I saw the ball just sitting there. So I just took the ball and ran with it,” Fouts said before adding with a laugh, “There were guys pulling down my pants trying to tackle me.”
Spartans junior defensive end Corey Dupree recorded a crucial sack on fourth and 5 just past midfield, and later in the second quarter senior defensive lineman Josh Taylor brought up a third and 12 by tackling Lyles behind the line of scrimmage.
Sinclair also picked up a sack with Chestatee near the red zone in the closing seconds of the first half.
That helped West Hall take a 21-0 lead into halftime, an advantage it gained on Thompson’s 8-yard scoring strike to junior Jeremiah Prather on third and goal with about five minutes left in the half. Prather jumped to catch the ball and managed to tap his left foot in the end zone before falling out of bounds.
Dupree recovered a fumble on the War Eagles’ first drive of the second half, and teammate John Stoecker came up with a big sack to force a punt after the Spartans fumbled it right back.
But Dupree’s biggest play came in the final minute of the third quarter when he effectively put the game out of reach by returning an interception 30 yards for a touchdown.
“I didn’t even realize the ball was in my hands,” the defensive end said with a grin. “I was just playing, and the ball was suddenly in my hands, so I just started running with it. I surprised myself with that interception.”
Prather snagged an interception of his own just plays later, though Chestatee managed to score twice in the fourth quarter with freshman quarterback Christian Charles playing Wildcat quarterback in place of Storm Yarbrough.
Charles burst up the middle for a 60-yard rushing touchdown before hitting Lyles on the 97-yarder late in the game.
“They could have packed up their tents and called it a night,” Lotti said. “Credit them for fighting down to the end. Coach Conley has done a phenomenal job there.”
It still wasn’t enough for the War Eagles, who lost three starters to apparent injury Friday night after entering the game without senior linebacker Reggie James. They’re now behind the 8-ball in the region, whose other three teams — No. 5 Blessed Trinity, No. 6 Marist and much-improved White County — also boast winning records.
West Hall, meanwhile, is out to prove it has staying power in this brutal region after claiming the No. 3 playoff seed last year and upsetting a ranked Troup squad on the road in the first round.
“We want to show people it’s not just one man against the world, West Hall against the world,” Fouts said. “We’re a family here, and we’re done being the underdogs.”
Both teams continue region play next week. The Spartans travel to Marist, while Chestatee hosts Blessed Trinity.