The Valdosta High Wildcats are coming off a tough region loss against Coffee as they prepare for their match-up against the Hughes Panthers in the first round of the GHSA 6A playoffs.
The Wildcats come into the playoffs as a No. 4 seed and will be facing a Hughes team that finished the regular season 9-1, as a No. 1 seed.
The Wildcats finished yet another average season at 6-4 and Head Coach Rance Gillespie is not particularly happy about his team's finish in the regular season.
“This team has battled and fought all year, but we let ourselves down,” said Gillespie.
The Wildcats have played well at home, finishing the season with a 6-1 on Cleveland Field at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. However, the ‘Cats have proven to be a different team on the road, falling to three out of their four opponents while being the visitors.
While Gillespie has stated all season that preparation for home games and away games does not change much, it will be a must for the ‘Cats to come out strong in the matchup.
Senior running back duo Malcolm Joseph and Nelson Herring will be called upon to hold the ‘Cats offense together. Joseph (905 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Herring (837 yards, nine touchdowns) are the No. 3 and No. 5 ranked running backs in the region and have the ability to control the game for the ‘Cats.
The offensive line will have to be strong in the game to keep a feisty Hughes pass rush from getting to sophomore quarterback Seth Shuman when the ‘Cats do decide to throw the ball. Shuman will have the task of finding the open receiver against a defense that has shut out five out of 10 opponents this season alone, including shut outs for the Panthers' last two games of the season.
With the playoffs being a must-win situation, the Wildcats have to go back to the hunger they showcased in their first four games of the season when they were 4-0 and averaging 30-plus points a game. The ‘Cats have dropped four of their last six games and must quickly find a way to win, and win now.
The Wildcat defense has had trouble stopping teams on third down as the second part of the season progressed. The defense has been a huge factor this season. The secondary will be called on to cause turnovers and the linebackers for the ‘Cats will have to make tackles, not miss them. The leaders of the defense, senior linebacker Anthony Smith and defensive tackle Darrius Sapp must be all over the ball in tonight’s game.
“We have to find our heart again as a team,” said Gillespie.
Hughes has had an amazing season after dropping its first and only game of the season against Creekside 16-14. The game was the Panthers' lowest scoring of the season, proceeding to defeat teams by an average margin of 30 points.
Valdosta has never played Hughes before, as the school opened within the last five years. If Valdosta can pull off the victory, the Wildcats will face the winner of the Newton vs. McEachern game next Friday. Today's game is set to begin at 7:30 p.m at Hughes High in Fairburn.