Monday October 23rd, 2017 8:22PM

Wildcats and Dragons set for Region 8-AA slugfest (Video)

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
  Contact Editor
JEFFERSON -- The storylines are so thick you almost have to brush them away from your face.

Friday will see one team in the midst of a historic start to the 2013 season -- Rabun County -- travel to face a championship veteran looking to rebound from its first region loss since 2011 -- Jefferson.

The Wildcats are one of a handful of undefeated and unranked teams looking to show the rest of the state that they have arrived alongside the likes of the defending Class AA champion Dragons, whose only two losses have come by a touchdown to two top five teams.

Jefferson, meanwhile, will enter the contest with a new starting quarterback, as TJ Skelton takes over for Evan Shirreffs, who went out with a thumb injury in last week's 21-14 defeat at Washington-Wilkes.

See what we mean?

(NOTE: To watch a video feature with each team, click "play" on the box to the right.)

And that doesn't even touch the Region 8-AA championship race implications at play tonight at Memorial Stadium -- or the two potentially explosive offenses facing off against two tough defenses.

Indeed, all the elements are in place for a classic -- and both teams say they are looking for just that.

"Everybody's excited. We've done such a good job just competing, which had been lost a little bit up here," said Rabun County coach Lee Shaw, whose team is off to its best start since 1998, when the Wildcats reached the Class A quarterfinals. "The whole community is excited, the school's excited, and the players are excited for a chance to play Jefferson in this situation."

Far from dwelling on last week's setback, the 10th-ranked Dragons (3-2, 1-1 Region 8-AA) say they are focused only on the task at hand.

"They're feeling challenged and have accepted that challenge," Jefferson coach Ben Hall said. "They've responded well. We've had a good week of practice, and I think the team will be ready to play."

Offensively that play will look quite different from how Jefferson started the season. With the more prototypical pocket passer (Shirreffs) sidelined, the fleet-footed Skelton takes over for his first start of the campaign. Skelton played admirably after being thrust into the position early in last week's loss, completing 3 of 6 passes for 54 yards, while also rushing for 53 yards and a touchdown.

"I think I responded pretty good (against Washington-Wilkes); there was a lot of pressure of course, but the team was behind me and we played hard, but we came up a little short," said Skelton, who had been the team's leading receiver until moving under center.

Hall said, that although Skelton's skill set differs from Shirreffs, the Dragons -- who are scoring 38.4 points per game -- will adapt quickly.

"TJ's an athlete. He's raw at quarterback in our system -- he's played QB before but not long in our system," Hall said. "But he brings some things we're going to try and take advantage of."

The Dragons will also continue to lean on senior fullback Tristen Jackson (437 yards rushing, 6 TDs; 11 receptions, 215 yards, 4 TDs), as well as a strong offensive line. And it is that battle in the trenches -- and beyond -- that Shaw says will hold the key to the contest -- regardless of the quarterback.

"The match-ups will come down to how physical we can play," Shaw said. "Last year they dialed it up physically in the second half and we couldn't match it."

Indeed, Jefferson pulled away from a 13-7 scoreline at the half of last year's meeting in Tiger to score 42 unanswered points in a 55-7 finish.

Yet, the Wildcats (5-0, 2-0) feel they are a much improved squad over last year and are prepared for the challenge this time around.

"It's been different this year. Our offense has been better. Our dfefense is stepping it up... We're a better team than last year," Wildcats sophomore standout Charlie Woerner said.

The athleticism of the 6-foot-4 Woerner has been a key part of that this season. With 324 yards rushing (17.4 yards per rush), eight receptions for 254 yards and 11 total touchdowns -- on just 26 touches -- has helped the evolution of Rabun's spread attack. Senior quarterback Wes Holcombe has led the way for the Wildcats, completing 67 percent of his passes for 956 yards and 14 TDs against just three interceptions. Running back Dan Dailey (430 yards rushing, four TDs) and receiver Alden Wright (21 catches, 328 yards, three TDs) have also played key roles.

"We're playing really, fast, getting a lot of plays in," Shaw said. "We're averaging 60-plus plays per game and even had 88 earlier this season," Shaw said. "I'm real pleased with the progression of the offense, and we've been able to open the playbook more this year."

That said, Rabun knows it is about to face its toughest test by far this season against a Jefferson team that has already faced five straight playoff teams from a season ago, including a hardfought 41-34 loss to Class AAA No. 4 North Hall.

"Those guys have been there and done that," Shaw said. "They've won a state championship, and you can't trade that off for anything. Our guys want that challenge to see where we're at. But we have to play mistake-free. You look at them (Jefferson) on film and you can't find a weakness."

Likewise, Hall says his team is prepping for a fight against the Wildcats.

"They execute and they're explosive offensively; they put a lot of points on the board," Hall said. "Defensively they're sound. They do a good job getting to the ball. Our line of scrimmage has to play well on both sides. And we'll have to play well in space on defense. They do a great job of creating match-ups, and we have to respond and contain their athletes. We'll have our hands full on both sides."

It's a challenge Jefferson defensive back Hanon Price says he and his teammates are relishing.

"That's something the defense focuses on a lot is being physical; we've got to get 11 hats to the ball -- that's definitely important in this one," Price said. "We've got to hit them and not let them up."

Rabun expects the Dragons to be fired up with the backing of a home crowd, but the Wildcats are not frightened of the challenge of playing on the road. Indeed, Holcombe smiled when asked about Rabun's next three contests -- all on the road against playoff hopefuls.

"I love it. We have big road games coming on against some rivals -- Jefferson, Washington-Wilkes, and then Union County," Holcombe said. "All of them will be out for blood, and we have to come out for blood too and match their physical games."

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Jefferson
-- RADIO: 102.9 FM
-- RABUN (5-0, 2-0 Region 8-AA): Defeated Riverside Military 63-7 last week.
-- JEFFERSON (3-2, 1-1 Region 8-AA): Lost to Washington-Wilkes 21-14 last week. The Dragons are ranked No. 10 in Class AA.
-- HISTORY: Jefferson won last year's meeting 55-7. The Dragons lead the series 17-3.
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