The Valdosta Wildcats have done everything they can to prepare for tonight’s game.
The coaches have spent many hours developing a game plan and implementing it at practice. The players have gone through several practices getting ready to face a talented Lowndes team. The team has tried to stay focused amidst all the hype of Winnersville week.
Now it’s time to play ball.
The Wildcats (3-2) will try to defend their home turf tonight, when fourth-ranked Lowndes (6-0) comes into sold out Bazemore-Hyder Stadium for the Winnersville Classic. Kickoff time is 8 p.m.
“This is the one you circle on the calendar,” Valdosta quarterback Shelby Wilkes said. “You can’t help but get excited for this one. Everything’s going on around town. It’s just a buzz everywhere. ... I’ve always known it was big, but I didn’t know how big until last year, when I played in it.”
Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie admits he loves coaching in the Winnersville Classic.
“It’s a game like no other, that’s for sure,” Valdosta’s third year coach said. “It’s a huge rivalry, an unbelievable atmosphere for high school football. There’s a lot of things to attribute the rivalry and that atmosphere to. No. 1, Valdosta’s just a football-crazy town, period. Then you’ve got two good football programs (that are) only (5.6) miles apart. You’ve got proximity, you’ve got two quality programs, just a lot of things that factor into being (a great rivalry).
“It’s a lot of fun for the players. It’s a lot of fun for the coaches. It’s a lot of fun for the fans.”
The last two Winnersville games haven’t been decided until the final seconds. In 2010, future Georgia Bulldog Josh Clemons intercepted a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game to seal a 24-17 win for Lowndes. Then last year, Valdosta scored two touchdowns in the final 49 seconds, and broke a seven-game Winnersville losing streak with a 21-17 win.
“Those were two good games,” Gillespie admitted.
Valdosta will go through its typical pre-game routine after school today. Then around 6 p.m., the team will climb on the buses and head to the stadium. Around 6:20 p.m., they will arrive at the Valdosta City Schools Central Offices parking lot, where they will be met by a large throng of Wildcat fans and go through the Cat Walk on their way to the stadium. Then they’ll get dressed and get ready to play their crosstown rivals.
Gillespie has studied the film from every Lowndes game this season, so he knows the Vikings very well. And he says Lowndes is as good as advertised.
“They’ve got a good football team,” he said.
Offensively, Lowndes has run the wing-T since head coach Randy McPherson arrived in 2002. Not surprisingly, Gillespie says the strengths of the Vikings’ offense are the running backs and the offensive line.
“Those backs are really good,” Valdosta’s coach said. “(Nick) Burgman and (Tiquan) Lang and 5 (Jordan Williams) and 4 (Ahman Brown), 36 (Tevin Orr) is the fullback, 37 (Tevin Brown). All of those guys are really good players. ... Those backs do a good job of breaking tackles, they’ve got great speed, they’ve got a great feel for what they’re doing in that offense.
“They’ve got a big lineman (6-foot-4, 320-pound Anfernee Chandler). He’s a good player. The backs and that line of scrimmage (are good). That’s not anything revolutionary; they’re Lowndes. It’s what they always do.”
Defensively, the Vikings use a 5-2 base defense. Lowndes has posted three shutouts this year, and its defense is allowing just 4.4 points per game over the last five games.
“They’ve played extremely well,” Gillespie said. “They haven’t given up hardly any points, and not very many yards. Through six games, I can probably count on one hand the number of big plays they’ve given up.
“The secondary is really talented,” Gillespie added. “It probably starts with Lang back there. The safeties (Lang and Eric Hart) are two good players. The corners (Kenny Moore and Brandon Roberts) are good, solid players. They have some other players that have been playing back there, like 19, Jumacey Wright. The two linebackers are athletic. I know that they’re really high on No. 17 (Tre’ Jackson); I can understand why. He’s very athletic; he makes a lot of plays for them. Up front, one of the ends is young, but he’s a really good looking young kid; he’s going to be a good player. Both ends are talented; they look similar to what they usually play with at that position. ... (DeAngelo Edmonds) is the nose. (Chandler Sumlin) is a bigger body kid. (Sam Washington) is the third (interior defensive lineman). They can get there fast.
“They’ve really got overall good team speed. Even the guys up front are probably quicker than they typically play with over there.”
The Vikings’ team speed has made it tough to score on them.
“With that type of speed on defense, it’s hard to get big plays. When it’s hard to get big plays, you have to do something consistent, and do it over and over and over, and do it well over and over and over, and that is a challenge,” Gillespie said. “That’s what team speed does to you.”
What does Valdosta have to do to win tonight?
“We have to find a way to move the football against a defense that hasn’t given up many yards and hardly any points,” Gillespie said. “We have to find a way to match their speed on both sides of the ball. Our offensive line has to play fast, to match the speed of their defensive front. They’re moving those guys around, they’re bringing more pressure. ... We’ve got to be able to match all that movement and all that quickness and speed defensively. We’ve got to make plays. They’re very sound, and they’re not going to give anything, so we’ve got to go out and make (plays) and create plays. We’ve got to be able to hold up against their power run game and contain their backs, and when they get out on the perimeter, we have to do a good job of tackling. These guys break a lot of tackles. They do a good job of not going down on first contact. We’ve got to run to the ball and get a lot of guys there and do a good job of tackling.”
Today’s game will not be shown on television. But it will be carried on radio. Valdosta fans can listen to the game on 95.7 FM, while Lowndes fans can tune into the game on 99.5 FM.
The Valdosta Wildcats have done everything they can to prepare for tonight’s game.
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