Fourteen to 10.
The Marion County players remember that score, perhaps, more than any other during their incredibly successful season.
The team has won 11 games, tying the most in school history, and lost just one. It’s that one blemish, a 14-10 loss to Hawkinsville in the ninth game of the season, that stands out the most.
Lucky for the Eagles, Friday will offer a chance at redemption. They host Hawkinsville (9-3) in the semifinals of the Class A public playoffs with a trip to the Georgia Dome for the state championship on the line.
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“They ruined our undefeated season, so we’ve got to win this one,” quarterback Dustin Eckert said. “There’s no second chance this time.”
As if the Eagles really needed any added incentive. As if they weren’t motivated enough to be playing the single biggest game in the school’s history.
“Our kids have plenty of incentive because it’s the semifinals on our home field,” coach Mike Swaney said. “Add in the rematch with Hawkinsville and the fact it’s a chance to go somewhere where a lot of kids never get a chance to play — in the Dome. They don’t need any extra incentive.
“They’re preparing for the biggest sports event in the history of Marion County. There will be more people here than has ever attended, probably, any single event in the county.”
Lucky for them, Swaney said, the playoffs are nothing new for the Eagles, and he said his players were handling the pressure just fine. What it will come down to, then, is the matchup.
Marion County prides itself on being a physical team, but Swaney said it was outdone by Hawkinsville in the first meeting. The Red Devils don’t throw the ball much, but controlled the game on the ground with a strong offensive line. Hawkinsville has rushed for 3,336 yards as a team this year, led by Dontavious Grace (1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns) and J.D. Burden (937 yards).
“I think we’re a little more prepared for their physicality,” Swaney said. “We’re usually the more physical ones, but they outplayed us last time. I think we’ll be more prepared for how physical the game is going to be this time.”
The Eagles counter with a little more balanced attack, though theirs, too, is run heavy. Johnny Royal leads the team with 1,316 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns and Lorenzo Smothers has contributed 1,480 yards of total offense. Eckert has completed 61 of 109 passes for 898 yards, 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The Marion County defense, led by Roderick Bishop’s seven sacks, Brandon Green’s 99 tackles and Smothers’ four interceptions, allows just 9.7 points per game.
The matchup between the coaches is also an interesting one. Swaney and David Daniel coached together for six years at Westside-Macon and, according to the Marion County coach, talk at least once a week.
“There are no surprises in this one,” Swaney said.
One thing is clear, though: The Marion County players want this game. Eckert and Smothers both said they had never been to the Georgia Dome as fans. To have a chance to play on the same field as the Falcons makes Friday’s game at their home stadium that much more important.
“Appetite, baby,” Smothers said with a big grin. “We’re hungry.”
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