Wednesday February 10th, 2016 10:53AM

Spartans' defense seeing fruits of offseason labor

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
OAKWOOD -- In just about every sport, it's not how you start, but how you finish.

West Hall's 35-0 win over rival Johnson to start the 2013 season two weeks ago was more than Tony Lotti and the Spartans coaching staff could have asked for.

Instead of worrying about the October or November, as Week 2 approaches, Lotti is focusing on how his Spartans follow up their dominating opening win when they travel to take on Chestatee Friday night at War Eagle Stadium.

"We've had some success and it feels great," he said Wednesday as they prepared for practice. "But that game is now in the past. What we have to learn is how to handle success and make sure we can keep things moving forward. This is the big challenge for us right now."

West Hall (1-0) came into the season with more than a few question marks, especially on defense, which gave up 34 points a game in 2012. But it was the defense that set the tone early for the Spartans against Johnson. They forced three turnovers, which led to 21 points, and did not allow the Knights to cross midfield until the fourth quarter.

Defensive coordinator Ben Conley said the number was used as a motivational tool all during the offseason.

"We told them that we had to be better on that side of the ball and the kids have been committed to that improvement since the last game of last year," Conley said. "(The kids) recognized it and we have worked hard on discipline and mental toughness. I think it showed in that first game that we have improved and it was a huge positive for the kids to see their hard work pay off."

The shutout was the first for any West Hall team since beating Gilmer 27-0 in the third game of the 2008 season. There were no eye-popping stats -- Tavezz Thurman led the Spartans with just five tackles. But more than half-a-dozen players had at least three tackles.

Seniors Antonio Pittman (nose tackle) and Eric Camacho (linebacker) both said they noticed a marketable change from last year.

"I definitely feel we're better than last year," Camacho said about the defense. "We can do a lot of things and we got a lot of hats to the ball. It was just one game but we have a lot of confidence right now."

Pittman, who seemed to be in the middle of the action on virtually every play, said the biggest change he's noticed is not physical.

"We already had some good players but I think we've improved a lot mentally," Pittman said. "The coaches have brought the right kind of attitude to help us be successful."

Against Chestatee, the Spartans are sure to be facing an opponent that will have a chip on its shoulder after a tough loss last week to arch-rival North Hall. The War Eagles (0-1) piled up more than 300 yards of offense but penalties and turnovers doomed their fate.

Senior quarterback Wyatt Burgess had 55 yards rushing while Blake Buffington finished with 49 yards and Tray Bryant had 34 yards for the War Eagles against North Hall. Justin Spears had an excellent game on special teams for Chestatee with over 100 yards in returns.

Conley said the War Eagles will be a much bigger challenge for them, especially coming off a loss.

"I'm sure they're going to be ready to make up for that a little bit," he said. "Plus, they are much bigger along the line than Johnson. Their size will be a big challenge for us, no doubt.

"But, our guys have learned since last year to get back up after getting knocked down. Our mindset is much better right now. Last year we may have talked about competing. This year we're talking about winning every time we step on the field."

"We know Chestatee will be big and tough but we're ready," Pittman said. "We're not where we want to be as a defense yet, but we're close."

Lotti's philosophy focuses on five key areas -- defensive scoring average, offensive scoring average, turnovers, third-down conversions, and net punting. He said they were a perfect 5-for-5 last week.

"I think we won every one of those areas and the score I think indicated that," he said. "But the most important number for me all night was that zero for the other team. It's hard to get a shutout and we were very proud of that effort. We know it's not going to happen every week."

Camacho said the seniors, especially those on the defensive side, are ready to put their stamp on things for the Spartans.

"We feel we're better than than people say we're going to be," Camacho said. "The seniors want to be known as the group who started a new era of West Hall football."

They're off to a good start. We'll have to wait to see how things finish.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: War Eagle Stadium, Gainesville
-- RADIO: 102.9 FM
-- WEST HALL (1-0, 0-0 Region 7-AAA): Bye last week after defeating Johnson 35-0 on Aug. 23.
-- CHESTATEE (0-1, 0-0 Region 8-AAAA): Lost to North Hall 33-15 last week.
-- HISTORY: Chestatee won the last meeting 42-21 in 2012. The War Eagles lead the series 5-4.
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