Columbus’ final football playoff hopes rest with two teams, both of which play in first-round Georgia High School Association games tonight.
Class AA’s top-ranked Carver hosts Pepperell at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, and Hardaway travels to No. 5 Starr’s Mill for a Class AAAA game.
Carver (10-0) is anticipating a tough test out of fourth-seeded Pepperell (7-3), and Hardaway (5-5) faces a Starr’s Mill (10-0) defense allowing roughly seven points per game this season. But neither is ready to call it a season just yet.
“Someone’s number is going to be called Friday,” Carver coach Dell McGee said. “We just have to make sure we’re ready to answer.”
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Hawks’ schedule prepared them for this moment
Hardaway has had its share of trying games this season.
The Hawks fell 36-0 to Class AAAAA’s then-No. 7 Valdosta. They lost 44-0 to Class AA’s No. 1 Carver. It was a 33-6 loss a week later against Class AAAA’s then-No. 9 Thomas County Central. And, last week, the Hawks fell 37-14 at Class AAAA’s No. 1 Northside-Warner Robins.
Each loss was frustrating, but every one of those games has prepared Hardaway for its most important contest of the season, tonight’s first-round GHSA Class AAAA playoff game at No. 5 Starr’s Mill.
“We believe that right now is the best time to show what we really have in the state of Georgia and in Columbus,” Hardaway wide receiver Devin Jackson said. “We see now that playing those teams really helped us prepare for this moment.”
The Hawks reached the playoffs Oct. 28 by defeating Houston County 34-14 at Kinnett Stadium, ending a playoff drought that began with the 2000 season.
Jackson said the Hawks hope to make the most of the return to the postseason.
“We see this as a big opportunity to put Hardaway back on the map,” Jackson said. “It’s been 11 long years, and now we have a chance to do something special here for our coaches, players and the whole school in general.”
Even with that tough schedule, topping Starr’s Mill is no easy task and something no team has accomplished this season.
The Panthers don’t have a complex playbook, but they execute everything in it well enough to have outscored opponents 338-79 and shut out four of them this season.
“They’ll run a lot of the same stuff out of different formations to get you out of place,” Battles said. “They’re very disciplined, a very good team, and they have a very good defense that is very stingy on yards. We’re going to have to play our best.”
Injuries give Carver backups experience
Carver has been pining for the playoffs since the start of the season.
The Tigers opened the season ranked No. 2 in Class AA and knocked off top-ranked Buford in Week 2 en route to a Region 5-AA championship and 10-0 regular season.
That’s not to say the road to tonight’s game hasn’t had its share of bumps. The injury bug spread, affecting several players, including highly recruited running back Isaiah Crowell, who has been limited or held out each week since midseason with leg injuries.
But McGee has found a way to make the most out of the situation by getting his backups valuable experience.
“Our backup guys and No. 2 guys have gotten a lot of reps, and we’ve developed some depth while having an opportunity to watch some young guys develop into bigger roles,” McGee said. “It has definitely been beneficial.”
Crowell will be in uniform but will be a game-time decision, according to the coach.
Offensive lineman and South Carolina commitment Quincy McKinney has been sidelined with an undisclosed ankle injury since the beginning of the season, but he has practiced for about two weeks and could get some playing time Friday, McGee said.
With the lineup looking little like it did in the opening weeks of the season, McGee said the emphasis at practice this week has been on starting fresh.
“We basically told our team we’re 0-0, and the next game against Pepperell is the only one we’re looking at,” McGee said. “Our kids and coaches have done an excellent job of that, and our main focus right now is on that team.”
Preparation has been intense, too, because Pepperell is not like most fourth seeds, McGee said. Pepperell was a top-10 team last season but fell short in the 2010 polls after several key injuries. Pepperell has most of those injured players back again, and the team comes from the competitive and subdivided Region 7-AA that is home to No. 3 Calhoun.
“We feel like we’re prepared,” McGee said. “The most important thing has been our practice. You can’t go by what your region has consisted of or what your region teams are comprised of. You can’t control that. So we practice hard to play our best each week.”
Chris White, 706-571-8571; follow Chris White online at twitter.com/le_chriswhite and facebook.com/lechriswhite.