‘Embracing the challenge’: Wildcats prepared to face No. 9 Vikings in Winnersville Classic on ESPN

Shane Thomas | The Valdosta Daily TimesValdosta offensive lineman Jacarrius Peak (66) lifts wide receiver Javonte Sherman into the air after a touchdown catch (11) during the second quarter Friday at Mack Tharpe Stadium in Moultrie.

VALDOSTA—You don’t have to tell the Valdosta Wildcats (2-1) what week it is. 

They know the caliber opponent that looms when Lowndes High (4-0) comes to Bazemore-Hyder Stadium for the Winnersville Classic. 

They know that the Vikings are ranked No. 9 nationally and have outscored them 140-35 the last three times that they’ve faced them. 

Once the outright dominant program, now Valdosta sits in the shadows of the Vikings. 

But Friday, rankings, statistics and history don’t matter. The only thing that will matter is black and gold versus crimson and white. 

“The preparation for this week is very serious,” senior receiver Javonte Sherman said. “Not saying that any other week is not serious but this is the most important week. I feel like we’re together as a team working hard to get better to win.” 

The Wildcats preparation included getting ready for the atmosphere of the Classic. Nearly 12,000 fans are expected to be in attendance. The noise that comes with that can have a large impact on getting signals on both sides of the ball. 

However, the person most effected by the noise will be Valdosta’s junior quarterback, Amari Jones. 

Jones, a transfer from Carver High, will be playing in his first Winnersville Classic this weekend. 

He was originally named the starter to replace University of Southern California commit Jake Garcia prior to the Bainbridge game due to an injury. 

Garcia, a transfer himself, moved from California to Valdosta in order to play his senior season before enrolling early at USC.

On Sept. 30, Garcia was declared ineligible by the Georgia High School Association, leaving Jones as the current starter for the foreseeable future. 

“It’s a challenge,” Jones said about facing Lowndes. “It’s always a challenge when you’re going against a good team like that with a good program. I’ll embrace the challenge. We’re embracing the challenge this week. Offense, we’re going to be more crisp this week than we were last game and I think that’s the goal. We have to score points on this team.” 

Scoring points on the Lowndes defense is no easy feat. 

The Vikings only allowed an average of 11.6 points per game last season and are on course to duplicate that success. 

Thus far they’re allowing an average of 14.25 points per game. They have 251 total tackles, 26.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks and six interceptions through four games. 

Anchored by linebacker Thomas Davis (who was named the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s Classic), the Vikings are one of the top defenses in the state. 

The Wildcats counter with an offense that can pull defenses apart. 

They boast a three-headed receiving core of pure talent. Aalah Brown, Javonte Sherman and Tajh Sanders present possibly the best receiving core in the state and the numbers speak for themselves.

The trio combined for 157 receptions and 2,998 yards last season at there respective schools. This year, they have 24 combined receptions for 488 yards—high marks even though two of Valdosta’s games were cancelled.

Even more so, they serve as leaders on the team. 

Sherman said on Monday that at the start of every game week he gives Jones a new word. The word for this week? 

Calm.

“I just tell him stay calm and do him—don’t rush nothing, don’t force nothing. Just stay calm,” Sherman said.

First-year Wildcat head coach Rush Propst is no stranger to facing Lowndes. In fact, he’s the coach that has seen the most success against the Vikings in recent history. 

Propst has a 6-2 record in the last eight games that he’s faced the Vikings. His last meeting in 2018 was a 40-6 victory in his final season at Colquitt. 

A lot has changed since then. 

“Jamey (DuBose) is different than Randy (McPherson) there’s no doubt,” Propst said about facing the Vikings. “There’s different types of schemes that they run. I’ve gone against Jamey (DuBose) before when he was at Prattville and I was at Hoover. So there’s some familiarity there, plus Jamey coached for me so I know Jamey a little bit.” 

DuBose worked under Propst at Eufaula High School in Alabama before facing off against him in the 2004 and 2006 state championships as offensive coordinator for Prattville. 

Though more than a decade ago, the two coaches will find themselves on opposing sidelines once again. 

If Valdosta hopes to gain an edge, it’ll start with containing Lowndes quarterback Jacurri Brown. 

“At the end of the day, the quarterback is a phenomenal athlete and he’s the one you have to coach against,” Propst said on Brown.

Last year the Valdosta defense did a good job of bottling Brown. He was 6-of-16 passing for 50 yards and only had 47 yards on 12 carries. The Classic was the only game where Brown didn’t register a touchdown. 

Going into the matchup, the Valdosta defense is betting on itself. 

“We look at every game the same,” junior defensive back JaDarian Rhym said. “We know our defense. We have the best defense in the state. Possibly in the country but we just have to stop the quarterback. Stop him from getting big plays … I’m ready for it. I’m ready for anything.” 

As if either team needed any extra incentive, the game will be televised on ESPN2. 

The Lowndes Vikings and Valdosta Wildcats will face off for bragging rights and pride in the Winnersville Classic at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium on Friday at 8 p.m. 

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