This season has begun much in the same fashion as 2012 for Hardaway.
It won its first two games over Jordan and Columbus, both games it was favored in, prior to entering a particularly difficult stretch that includes games against Shaw, Lowndes and Newnan.
Last season, this was the moment things started to go downhill for the Hawks. A 2-0 start turned into seven straight losses, a 2-7 record and no chance at the postseason.
In fact, Shaw has beaten Hardaway six straight times dating back to the 1999 season.
For various reasons, they feel like this year can be different.
“Last year and this year, it’s two different teams,” offensive lineman Desmond Barmore said. “We didn’t practice hard enough last year. We didn’t practice hard enough last week, and we were in a dogfight, so we know how hard you have to bring it every week. This week, we’re working hard, no complaining, putting in the work.”
Running back Justin Crawford said it was all about confidence.
“We’re a confident team right now,” he said. “We know we can do better.”
A season ago, the Raiders defense was too much for Hardaway, limiting it to just six points in a 27-6 loss. Crawford didn’t play that game as he awaited clearance from the Georgia High School Association after transferring to Hardaway. His presence has already been felt early this season as he’s reached the end zone six times in the first two games. Last week, he scored on the ground, through the air and on defense en route to a Hawks win.
He’ll need to be even better against a tough Shaw defensive front. Shaw struggled defensively against a talented Carver offense last week, but still limited the run, which both Crawford and Barmore noted as the team’s strength.
“Stopping the inside run,” Barmore said when asked what Shaw did well. “They stop that really well. Carver’s a good team with some good running backs, and they were able to slow that down against them last week.”
Hawks coach Jeff Battles also noted the team’s athleticism as a hurdle to clear in order to win the game.
“They’re extremely fast,” he said. “We worked on some pursuit stuff this week and a whole lot of tackling, because they’re athletic and they can get by you.”
One key difference in Shaw in this matchup from last year is at quarterback where Tyron Huff has taken over for last year’s All-Bi-City offensive player of the year, Chandler Whittlesey. Battles said it’s not easy to replace a guy like Whittlesey, but he knows Huff can still make things difficult.
“It’s different, but (Huff) does throw very well, so it’ll still be a challenge,” he said.
The game is a non-region game, so it won’t factor into the playoffs, which both Shaw and Hardaway can count among their realistic goals for the season. Still, Battles and his players stressed the importance of a game like this because it can continue to help them learn their identity as a team and prepare for similar region opponents down the road.
“If we can compete with them, we feel like we can compete with some schools in our region,” Battles said.
“It’s been a long time since we beat Shaw, I know,” Crawford said. “I feel like this game is going to determine if we’re alive or not.”
Barmore said the team wasn’t entirely satisfied how it has played so far despite the 2-0 start, so it has been working harder than ever to get on track going into a stretch that derailed it last season.
“We feel like we want it the most,” he said. “This is the team that can break the streak.”
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