SUGAR HILL — Erick Turner knows exactly what to expect in the build-up to Friday’s showdown for Lanier football — after all he and his teammates have been here many times before.
"It means something to know how to win games like this; its big for the culture of the program when you're in this situation," said Turner, a linebacker and leader for a Longhorns team that has played in plenty of region title-deciding contests over the past four seasons and faces another key showdown on Friday.
Josh Sims and his teammates, however, find themselves in rare territory, as Winder-Barrow approaches the same contest as relative newcomers to this type of hype.
“It’s tough. At at school that’s all I hear, ‘y’all are 6-0; you’re good.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hear that.’ I just try to keep it in the back of my mind so I can stay focused and keep a straight head,” Sims, a senior safety for the Bulldoggs, chuckled.
Thanks to that 6-0 start — Winder’s best since 1989 — and the state ranking that has come with it (the program’s first since the early 90s), the Bulldoggs are experiencing all kinds of increased adulation and attention.
And with a showdown against Lanier looming tonight in Sugar Hill, Winder players are doing their best to keep all of that as background noise.
“The community is behind us pretty good, and I feel like we’re just going to put on for them, just keep this streak as long as we can,” Sims said. “At the same time we have to work hard, keep the work ethic up that we had over the summer and just stay focused.”
The Bulldoggs know they must maintain utmost focus if they are to continue the ascent on which coach Heath Webb has led his team — not just this season but also in each of the past three campaigns.
“We’ve made a lot of good steps along the way — three straight playoff trips for the first time in school history has obviously been special for this little run. But we’re still taking steps and beating a team like Lanier at Lanier would be another step in the right direction, and just really proud of the way we’re playing right now,” Webb said.
And the Longhorns certainly have designs on maintaining their role as a top program in Region 8-AAAAAA.
“It helps to have experience in winning. It definitely helps the attitude, the culture of the team, if you know what it feels like to win (big games like this),” Turner said. “We’re the kind of team that’ll hang on. We’re going to keep it close, and in the end we’re going to pull through. We’re not going to quit; we’re going to finish the game.”
The Longhorns proved that three times in a tough non-region campaign that included close losses to Class AAAAAA No. 6 Northside, Warner Robins and Class AAAAAAA foe South Gwinnett but wins over Northview, Lambert and St. Pius X. And after a bye week to prepare for Friday’s battle with No. 9 Winder, Lanier is anxious to get its region campaign under way.
“We’ve got to protect the ball a little bit better. We’ve got to take care of some penalties we’ve had, especially the last few weeks. And if we can do those things then we’re going to have a chance every Friday night,” Longhorns coach Korey Mobbs said. “Our defense has continued to play well, and we’ve kind of prided ourselves on that. And we really feel like our quarterback has improved week to week. And that was really our plan. He’s a first-year starter, has a lot of arm talent and has just got to get used to playing quarterback and making Friday night decisions, and we think he’s done that, and we’re looking forward to his continued improvement in that.”
Zach Calzada has thrown for 774 yards and has 6 TD passes to 8 interceptions but has come on strong over the last few games, while running backs Larry Harper (257 yards rushing, 1 TD) and Kevonte Polk (169 yards, 3 TDs) lead the rushing attack.
Yet Lanier expects a tough battle against a Winder team that features the state’s sack leader in junior defensive lineman Logan Cash (12 sacks).
“They have some good defensive line players, and that’s going to be a challenge for us. But I’ve got faith in my guys, and I think we can handle it,” Lanier senior lineman Collin Foster said.
Mobbs saw the Bulldoggs in person last Friday, during his team’s bye week, and he came away impressed — and not just by the defensive line.
“So super physical — I think that’s one area that they have probably taken a step up from a physical standpoint,” Mobbs said. “Everything they do is going to be controlled by the quarterback, really good player, three year starter, got a lot of respect for him — just a guy that we’re going to have to try and contain. And he’s going to make plays, but we hope he doesn’t make enough of those plays, and our defense will have a plan, and hopefully that plan helps and comes to fruition.”
Senior Brock Landis (1,038 yards passing, 8 TDs, 4 INTs; 340 yards, 4 TDs) has developed into one of the top playmakers in northeast Georgia, and he has plenty of experienced help around him in Winder’s spread attack, including junior running back Jamar Mack (540 yards, 5 TDs; 19 receptions, 207 yards) and receivers Jaidon Turner (20 receptions, 283 yards, 2 TDs), Trace Wells (12 receptions, 233 yards, TD) and Lamonta Mack (12 receptions, 154 yards, TD).
“We have great coaching. They do a terrific job with the game-planning, play-calling and all that,” said Landis, who’s leading a unit averaging 35 points per game. “And we have guys that can make plays. Both our outside receivers are playmakers, and our inside receivers are both sure-handed guys that will make plays for us. Our O-line is great. They block great for me. And my running back Jamar he’s great and he does great for me too picking up blitzes. And I just do what I can do back there to help us win.”
That said, Landis expects an equally difficult task against a Lanier defense that features three stellar linebackers in Turner, Kameron Brown and Malik Johnson.
“They’re good in the box; they have a lot of good talent,” Landis said. “That’s just Lanier; that’s how they always are. They have a good defensive coordinator that knows what he’s doing.”
Both teams have shown they know how to win this season — and both believe that are approaching Friday’s contest from a position of strength.
It should make for some exciting fireworks in the 8-AAAAAA race.
“It’s huge for us. We’ve got a lot of guys that are returning starters and lot of experience so that helps a lot — just a lot of guys hungry that want to get better, wanting to prove who they are and to prove to everyone that we’re here to stay; we’re a good team,” Landis said.
“It will be what a Friday night is supposed to be, so we’re excited to be playing in this type of atmosphere and this type of game,” Mobbs said.
GAME of the WEEK
WINDER-BARROW at LANIER
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Longhorn Stadium, Sugar Hill
-- WINDER: (6-0, 1-0 Region 8-AAAAAA): Defeated Apalachee 56-14 last week. The Bulldoggs are ranked No. 9 in Class AAAAAA.
-- LANIER: (3-2, 0-0 Region 8-AAAAAA): Bye last week after 36-33 win over St. Pius on Sept. 22.
-- SERIES: Lanier leads 3-0.