MT AIRY — White County and Habersham Central have provided their loyal fan bases with plenty of fireworks.
In 2018, the Warriors seemed to be on their way to a blowout win against their rivals from Mt. Airy, leading 20-0 in the third quarter. Habersham ripped off 34 unanswered points to shock the Warriors 34-20 in Cleveland.
“They’ve been battles the last three years and I expect it to be the same this year,” Habersham coach Benji Harrison said. “I told our kids that this is going to be a four-quarter game and hope we have an opportunity in the fourth quarter to either have a stop to win or go score and win.”
Habersham Central (0-2) will welcome the Warriors (1-0) to Raider Stadium on Friday for the 10th meeting between the two rivals. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.
“I know Benji (Harrison) and how hard they will prepare for this game,” White County coach Tim Cokely said. “Last year, whenever we needed to make a play, we didn’t. It’s going to be such a good game.”
The Warriors are coming off a 49-6 rout of Lumpkin County in their season opener; while Habersham Central still is searching for its first win after back-to-back losses to Dawson County in Week 1, 27-13, and a 26-20 loss to Madison County last week.
“The last two weeks, we’ve been in some close games and had opportunities to make some plays and get the win,” Harrison said. “We just haven’t been able to make the big play at the right time on both sides of the ball.”
But Harrison said they’re not in panic mode yet after two losses in which the Raiders led at times.
“We’re playing with pretty good effort,” he said. “Our kids are not panicking right now. It’s been two great games to learn from. I like this football team, but we just need to make the play at the right time to get the win.”
The Raiders return the majority of their offense but have a new quarterback. Ryte Woodruff took over for Tre Luttrell at quarterback and has the entire offensive line back protecting him. Woodruff also has a pair of solid running backs in Arian Curry and Jackson Clouatre along with Joshua Prickett at receiver.
“I think he’s played pretty solid,” Harrison said about Woodruff. “He’s made a couple of mistakes in those two games, but he’s played good enough to win both those game. He makes good decisions and understands what we’re doing on every play. He’ll continue to get better with more experience. I look forward to watching him get better each game."
But for Harrison, he stressed that it all comes down to making plays and last week, Habersham had a shot to win the game. The Raiders were driving for the potential go-ahead score in the final minute but a penalty and a missed pass attempt killed any hopes of beating Madison for a second straight year
“We’ve been pretty balanced on offense,” he said. “What we’re missing right now is we’re not making the big play. I think you have to be able to make the big play when the opportunity presents itself. We need to have more explosive plays. I think it takes a lot of pressure off everybody when you’re able to do that. It forces the defensive to cover the entirety of the field. That’s one thing we’ve got to focus more on.”
White County, on the other, cruised for the second straight year in Week 1 against Lumpkin and Cokely feels his team is stronger mentally this season.
“We’re tougher mentally, so physically toughness always follows mental toughness,” Cokely said. “The physical toughness argument is useless if your team is not mentally tough and ready for situations. So we really worked on that in the offseason. We’re stronger mentally and I think that leads to a strong physical team.”
Junior quarterback J Ben Haynes and sophomore running back Zion McMullen led the Warriors’ balanced offensive attack against the Lumpkin, churning out 632 yards of offense. Haynes was 11-18 with 210 yards and begins his third season in Cokely’s spread offense.
“He’s a really good player,” Cokely said about Haynes. “He’s been able to play two years in this system and when you add athleticism to that position, good things happen. Last week, he made good decisions.”
Sophomore running back Zion McMullen was just as impressive, carrying the ball 12 times for 123 yards and three touchdowns.
“We have three or four guys that we rotate in at running back it was just kind of his turn,” Cokely said about McMullen. “He’s a big back. He ran it hard our other guys ran it well, too. He had a good night.
Defensively, Cokely says the Warriors are significantly better than last year. Jared Julian and Jackson Autry led the Warriors with eight tackles in Week 1 but Cokely also said several guys are starting to step up.
“It’s really about not being out of position,” Cokely said. “If we get in position and can’t make the play, there’s not much I can do about. Last year, at times as coaches, we didn’t have our guys in the right positions. After the scrimmage and the first game, we feel good about that part of it. We have several guys stepping up and learning how to play. We are significantly better than last year at this time defensively.”
Cokely believes Friday night will come down to special teams.
"It just always comes down to the kicking game and I feel like it’s going to be that way again this year,” he said. “They’re just so well-coached and they’re going to give us all they can handle.”
As for Harrison, he's looking for consistency on offense.
"We've got to be consistent on all phases of the game," he said. "Being able to be consistent on offense and make plays is huge in this game. We've also got to stay away from a big penalty that stops the drive. We got to keep drives alive and be able to spread the field. We have to force them to cover the entirety of the field. We got to be sound in our assignments and go out and execute, have fun and play with a lot of intensity."
WHITE COUNTY at HABERSHAM CENTRAL
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: Raider Stadium, Mt. Airy
-- RADIO: www.wrwh.com
-- WHITE COUNTY (1-0, 0-0 Region 7-4A): Defeated Lumpkin County 49-6 last week in season opener
-- HABERSHAM CENTRAL (0-2, 0-0 Region 8-6A): Lost 26-20 to Madison County last week
-- NOTABLE: Habersham Central leads series 6-3. The Raiders won 34-20 in 2018. ... White County holds a 3-2 edge since the series resumed in 2012. The Warriors also have won the last two meetings in Mt. Airy (2012 and 2017). ... The two teams split the last four meetings with the road team winning each of the last three. ... The Raiders are trying to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2015. Turnovers and allowing big plays on special teams and defense have been the issues early in the season. They also are breaking in several new offensive pieces. ... The Warriors defense was the encouraging sign in their opener. They yielded just 69 total yards and the 6 points were the fewest allowed in a game since shutting out Franklin County to open the 2017 campaign. ... The White County offense, behind QB J. Ben Haynes, piled up 632 yards of offense. Haynes was 11-for-18 with 210 yards and Zion McMullen had 12 carries for 123 yards and 3 TDs.