VALDOSTA –– After nearly two weeks off, the Valdosta Wildcats (8-2) begin their quest for the 25th state championship tonight at home against the Lakeside-Evans Panthers (7-2).
The 'Cats wrapped up their regular season Nov. 1 with a 48-7 win against Northside. In that game, senior quarterback Tate Rodemaker completed 15-of-20 passes for 339 yards and a career-high six touchdowns.
Rodemaker, the Wildcats' all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, leads a 'Cats team that was the No. 1 offense in Region 1-6A –– boasting the second-leading rusher in T.J. Dailey and one of top receivers in the state as a junior in Javonte Sherman.
The 'Cats average 41.8 points per game with a defense allowing just 20.8 points per game.
After defeating Northside, Valdosta had to wait a week before finding out who it would host in the first round. Head coach Alan Rodemaker said he'd heard Lakeside was winning 15-0 against Heritage Conyers before losing 20-15 last week. In fact, Rodemaker was with his son Tate on a recruiting trip to Virginia Tech when he got the news.
If this Lakeside team sounds familiar, it is. The 'Cats defeated the Panthers 69-14 in the first round of the 2016 playoffs en route to winning their first state title since 1998.
According to Rodemaker, much has changed since then.
"This football team, we played in 2016," Rodemaker said. "They were one half of what they are now –– they're so much better. It's night and day, they don't even look like the same program.
"They have a lot better football team. Of course, back then, they were 3-7. They're 7-2 this year and their record represents that."
The Panthers finished with a Region 3-6A-best 255 points this season –– an average of 28.3 points per game. Senior quarterback Jaden Taylor has completed 100-of-171 passes this season for 1,325 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. However, Taylor's value raises with his ability to run the ball. Taylor leads the team with 123 carries for 466 yards and nine scores.
In addition to Taylor's brilliance, the Panthers have gotten a productive season from senior Andrew May. May has 21 catches on the year for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, the Panthers haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game all season.
"They're really good on defense –– they fly around and they've been good against the run and the pass," Rodemaker said. "Offensively, they've got some good skill guys. It starts with their quarterback Jaden Taylor –– he's a dual-threat guy, runs and throws really well.
"Then, they've got some big wide outs –– they've got a 6-4 kid, Andrew May, who plays tight end and wide out. They've got a 6-1 wide out that's a really good, long body they throw some jump-balls. They've got some little quick guys that can roll. ... Long story short, I think it'll be a challenge for us, probably a little more than we want in the first round. They're a much-improved football team."
A look at the bracket suggests Valdosta will have to contend with region for Coffee among other teams in the GSWA Top 10 Rankings on their side of the bracket. 6A powerhouses Dacula and Lee County are on the opposite side.
Despite most of the hammers being on the other side, Rodemaker feels the level of talent is deeper on his team's side.
"It looks like our bracket and Coffee's bracket is deeper and some of the 1s, 2s and 3s are over there on the other side," Rodemaker said of the field. "Our bracket seems to be a pretty good football team every freaking week and who knows what rankings mean this time of year. I don't think anybody knows what everybody else is doing until they get them on film.
"I learned a long time ago, we do much better and I'm a much better coach if we just focus on not only this team, but focus on ourselves and how good we can be this week. I certainly want our kids to play into December, but at this point, the best team doesn't always win these playoff games. It's the best team that night and when you talk about the potential for bad weather, you talk about turnovers and you're talking about 14-18 year-old kids. We're doing our best to try to go out and play as well as we can Friday."
For the 'Cats, they'll look to continue their fiery finish to the regular season that saw them win three of the their last four games by an average of 31.4 points per game.
A big reason for Valdosta's big finish was the play of Tate Rodemaker along with Sherman and receiver Tarrell Roberts.
Rodemaker wrapped the regular season with three straight 300-yard passing games. Rodemaker set a new single-season record with 34 touchdowns in the win against Northside. Not only that, the senior surpassed Wildcat great Buck Belue for the most passing yards in a career with 6,068.
"First of all, let me tell you, Coach (Josh) Crawford getting here has been big for Tate's career," Rodemaker said. "Secondly, Tate's done it the hard way. There's not been any 'daddy ball' over here at Valdosta High School –– he's had to earn it. I probably should've gone to him earlier in his sophomore year, but he had to prove it just like everybody else.
"I didn't know he would end up being this good a player, I didn't know where he'd be. Honestly, I coach him just like everybody else. I know he's had the potential –– he's a good athlete, he loves football and he's a smart kid. I'm really proud of him."
When the 'Cats lost to Lee County on Oct. 25, Coach Rodemaker's first words to his team was, "Pray that we see them again."
Last season, the 'Cats advanced to the third round of the state playoffs before being dismissed 55-21 by Dacula. If the 'Cats handle their business on their side of the bracket, Rodemaker just might get his wish.
"Honestly, I want another shot at those guys," Rodemaker said of Dacula and Lee County. "I think the mentality of our team, our program and myself is that we expect to play good football teams every week and if we're doing that, whether they're in our bracket or not, then it doesn't really mean much. You're going to have to play the best. I think it's detrimental if you wish that they're all gone by the time you get to the end [laughs].
"A big part of me wants us to prove ourselves against Lee and Dacula and anybody else, but we've got to do it week by week. If we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be able to do that...hopefully."
Tonight's game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.