The Valdosta Daily Times
It all comes down to one final game for the Valwood Valiants. Tonight, the undefeated Valiants will host the Westwood Wildcats in the GISA Class AA State Championship Game at Goddard Field. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
“(Our players) know me well enough now to know that we are not going to change any kind of preparation,” Valwood head coach Ashley Henderson said. “This is a bigger game than last week, but we are not going to practice any harder and I don’t think we can practice any faster.
“But there has been a little extra sense of focus around here this week. We have had our three best days of practice we’ve had all year. We have been real crisp and we have had seniors going up to scout team guys and telling them to ‘bring it.’”
Valwood and Westwood met Oct. 19 in Valdosta. After a close first half, the Valiants pulled away and cruised to a 48-18 win over the Wildcats.
In the win, the Valiants led 13-6 at the half before adding two third quarter touchdowns to take a 27-12 lead into the final quarter.
“We have definitely not forgotten that, and we are practicing like that,” said Henderson, when asked about how close the game was in the first half. “We are not taking anything for granted.”
In the fourth quarter, running back Marik Merine scored three rushing touchdowns to ice the game for the Valiants.
“They are a good team,” Valwood offensive lineman Aulden Bynum said. “They had a chance to almost go up heading into halftime. It was a good game. I just think they wore down late, which I doubt will happen this time since I know they are conditioning for this game. They are coming into this game mad, so it is going to be a good one.”
Added quarterback Jake Lastinger, who completed 9 of 10 passes against the Wildcats earlier this season: “People that talk to me, they seem to forget it was close the whole first half. And then we came out in the second half, and I’m not sure if it was our depth or what, but we really wore them down in the second half. They are a great team and we are definitely not looking past them.”
Valwood beat John Milledge Academy in the state semifinals last weekend in Milledgeville. In the win, the Valiants blew a double-digit third quarter lead and needed a game-winning touchdown run by senior Khary Paige and a defensive stop inside their own 20-yard line late in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
“Going into that game, this entire football season, we had only been behind one other time, so when we huddled the guys up, I told them, ‘What an opportunity, because I had been wondering what would happen if they got behind,’” Henderson said. “And there was no panic in those guys. They accepted the challenge and they went and did it. That is what was so great.”
In its first season as a Class AA member school, Westwood entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed from Region 3. In the playoffs, the Wildcats beat Briarwood Academy 35-0 in the first round, Edmund Burke 35-20 in the second round and Brentwood 40-28 in the state semifinals last week.
“It will open your eyes. The kids understand what it is all about,” Henderson said. “Since we have played them, they haven’t played in a close game since then. They’ve beaten everybody pretty handily and they are playing pretty good football.”
Westwood’s appearance in the state championship game marks the third straight season the Wildcats have played for the state championship. The Wildcats won the two previous GISA Class A state championships and haven’t lost in the playoffs since a 28-24 loss to Thomas Jefferson in 2009.
“This is the biggest challenge of the season because it isn’t just a team you’ve beat, it is a team that knows how to play in the playoffs,” Henderson said. “They’ve been in the state championship three straight years, there has to be a lot to say about that.”
Tonight’s game can be heard live on The Jock 1150 AM, 96.1 FM. Live updates will be available on Twitter at @Ed_Hooper.
Gameday information: Tickets for tonight’s game will be on sale at the gate, although tickets are also on sale through the school to help avoid congestion at the ticket gate. Due to an expected large crowd, Valwood has brought in extra bleachers to help accommodate fans, although not all fans will be guaranteed seating. Lawn chairs will be permitted tonight. Due to the large amount of expected traffic, shuttle service will be available from various points in the parking lot.