VALDOSTA –– A lingering question will be answered when the Valdosta Wildcats (3-0) face the Colquitt County Packers (2-0) tonight at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
The question: Just how good are the ‘Cats?
“I think (this game) defines us,” Valdosta head coach Alan Rodemaker said. “Every Friday night, that scoreboard defines you. When you play a quality opponent from a higher classification, we’ll know how good we are. ... This is a big game, there’s no doubt about it. It’s not the state championship, but it’s a really big game. The most important thing is how much can you learn about your team so you can address where you’re deficient.
“We’ll know where we stand and what parts of our game can compete with the best and what parts need a little work. ... That’s why I like playing good teams. ... It won’t help us in the region standings, it won’t help us in any way other than the confidence value –– which is worth a million dollars. It’s an important game for that reason.”
Valdosta moved into the No. 1 spot in the Georgia Sports Writers Association rankings this week after a 54-34 blowout win against Columbia last week. Despite putting up 37 points in the first quarter against the Eagles last week, Rodemaker was far from pleased with his team’s effort –– calling the win “a sloppy mess.”
Following the game against the Eagles, Rodemaker called a team meeting in the weight room and over the course of this week’s practices, he feels his team is prepared for battle.
“It’s been a good week –– it’s been our best week that I can remember this year,” Rodemaker said. “After Friday, I met with our kids in the weight room after the game and I just said, ‘That’s really not Valdosta football.’ Even though we won big, we never really put them away. I think a lot of that was some backup players, but it was also the starters and it was mostly defense to be honest. Offensively, we got through a period in the second half and even late in the first half where we couldn’t get first downs –– we weren’t keeping the ball and we were sustaining drives.
“They came in here Monday ready to go. We had a good day Monday, had a great day on Tuesday and we had a good practice (Wednesday). ... We had a good practice this morning so the hay’s in the barn now.”
The Packers throttled Region 1-2A opponent Thomasville 45-3 last week. Through its first two games, Colquitt County is averaging 31 points per game while surrendering just nine total points thus far under new head coach Justin Rogers.
Colquitt is led by senior running back Daijun Edwards and senior quarterback Jaycee Harden, who have gotten off to impressive starts this season. Edwards has tallied 27 carries for 160 yards and three touchdowns while Harden has completed 31-of-44 passes for 456 yards and five touchdowns.
At wide receiver, the Packers go-to guy has been junior Lemeke Brockington. The 5-foot-11 Brockington leads the team with seven catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns. Montavious Ponder has one catch that went for a 52-yard touchdown while Orion Bonner has two catches for 50 yards with one score.
Rodemaker discussed the Packers during an interview on Thursday, heaping praise on Rogers, who took over for longtime coach Rush Propst, as well as Edwards, whom he calls the best running back in the state.
“To me, Justin’s doing a great job for him to be just in there with a lot of new staff members and they haven’t missed a beat,” Rodemaker said. “They’re as talented at wide out as they’ve ever been. They’ve got four or five guys that can go and a good wide out receiving core. They’ve got a couple, two or three tight ends and of course, Edwards is the best back in the state. Of course I haven’t seen everybody but I don’t know how you can be much better than him. He’s an excellent football player and they’ll be a huge challenge for us defensively.
“Defensively, they fly around the football. Nobody’s really scored anything on them. They’re very long on defense on the back end and they can fly. They’re playing hard over there so it’ll be a big challenge. Coach (Shawn) Campbell’s doing a great job.”
For the ‘Cats, they’ve had virtually no problems scoring through the first three games –– averaging 45.7 points per game. Senior quarterback Tate Rodemaker is off to a brilliant start for the ‘Cats, having completed 36-of-50 passes for 560 yards and 11 touchdowns through three games.
Valdosta’s receivers have feasted on opposing defenses as senior Jaheim Bell leads the team with 134 yards receiving on only six catches to go along with three touchdowns. junior Javonte Sherman leads the team in catches with 10 to go along with a team-high tying three touchdowns. A big Week 3 game by Santavious Gatlin –– two catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns –– solidified the senior as an impact player for the ‘Cats as the season moves forward. Fellow senior Tarrell Roberts has eight catches for 82 yards with two touchdowns –– rounding out a talented stable of receivers for Rodemaker to throw to.
A glaring issue for the ‘Cats early on this season has been the team’s ability to run the ball effectively. Last week against Columbia, six different players got carries for the ‘Cats but the team finished with just 20 yards rushing. In fact, through the first three games, Valdosta is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry –– a number Rodemaker wants to go up in short order.
“Really, it’s not about us preparing for Colquitt, we want to try to be more balanced every week,” Rodemaker said when asked how his team can thrive tonight. “We’ve made a conscious effort the last couple of weeks to really run the football and we’re doing it –– we’re trying to run it, but yards per carry aren’t where I want them. We’ve got a couple guys that are beat up at running back. But really it’s just our offensive line being able to open the holes and open the paths for them. It’s always our goal offensively to be balanced, regardless of what they give us.”
The Valdosta-Colquitt County rivalry dates all the way back to 1913 –– 104 games.
Valdosta leads the all-time series with a record of 70-30-4. However, it’s been quite a while since the ‘Cats have been able to come out on the winning end against the Packers. Colquitt has won each of the past six meetings with Valdosta and has done so in utterly dominant fashion –– averaging 39 points per game while allowing just 13.5 points during the streak.
The last Valdosta win came in 2012, a close 38-36 decision under former head coach Rance Gillespie.
“I’ve said all week, Colquitt is Colquitt,” Rodemaker said. “It’s Colquitt-Valdosta and I don’t care where it is. In the last 105 years, both of them were pretty good football teams and it’s no different this year regardless of rankings. Both of us are in the top part of our classification even on a bad night. We haven’t held up our end of this rivalry in the last six years and it’s time for us to do that.
“Five of the last six years, the game hasn’t been close so it’s up to us to get it back where it needs to be. Valdosta’s owned this series and we just haven’t since I’ve been here. I’m 3-6 against them as an assistant and a head coach –– I’ve never beaten them as a head coach. They’ve been a tough win for us for a long time.”