The 48th edition of one of the longest-running rivalries in northeast Georgia will have a different feel to it on Friday.
When the Georgia High School Association realigned and reclassified its more than 450 schools earlier this year, White County and North Hall found themselves in the same region, making it more than just a rivalry game.
“It’s a rivalry game and, since I’ve been here, it’s been a close game,” White County coach Tim Cokely said. "So, I don’t imagine this year will be any different. They just happen to be in our region, so it adds some implications. We prepare hard every week, and we’ve been preparing for North Hall since the summer.”
The two arch-rivals are slated to tee up it at Warrior Stadium in Cleveland tonight for not only bragging rights but a shift in the Region 7-3A standings. Kickoff is set for 7:30 and can be heard live on FM 102.9 WDUN.
(NOTE: For a look at all of Friday's football games for area teams, click here.)
“Being here for 20 years and playing them just about every year, I can honestly say, by far, this is the best White County team I have seen,” North Hall coach David Bishop said. “They have a tremendous senior class and some juniors and sophomores that are extremely talented that fill out the roster – big, fast, athletic, by far the best White County team I have seen.”
Since the renewal of the rivalry in 2002, North Hall has won six of the last 10, but White County has won 5 of the last 7 including last year’s 34-31 come-from-behind victory in Gainesville.
J. Ben Haynes was instrumental in the Warriors’ comeback last season, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 2:31 remaining in the game. But Haynes may or may not be in the lineup this week. The senior signal-caller exited last week’s game against Dawson County – a 42-35 loss -- with an injury and never return. Cokely said he expects his seasoned quarterback to play this week.
“We expect him to play. You know, I mean, it’s always day-to-day,” he said. “We don’t promise anybody they’re starting. What I tell my guys is our plan, if we played right now, you would start, not just him, but at every position. That plan could change at any time, but, yes, we expect him to play.”
If Haynes does not play, it limits the Warriors’ passing game. Haynes (61-104-3, 973 yards passing, 6 TDs; 81-646 rushing, 13 TDs) passed for 234 yards and a touchdown before his injury. The Warriors passed three times after he left, one of those an interception that sealed the game for the Tigers.
But Riley Stancil, who stepped in for Haynes, rushed 8 times for 36 yards and two touchdowns, executed the offense well. If needed against the Trojans, Cokely has faith in his back up quarterback.
“Good teams rally, good teams have character and this team, it’s not just wins and losses, they have dependable energy and effort,” Cokely said. “Riley is probably the only middle linebacker that plays quarterback in the state. He did a great job. We knew he would. Coach (Chad) Bennett has spent all summer preparing our offense. We just didn’t make the plays late in the game.”
Senior running back Silas Mulligan has proved he's a weapon in the Warriors’ offensive arsenal. He was instrumental in the Warriors play last Friday, rushing for 124 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown and has amassed 448 yards on 85 totes and four touchdowns this season. Wide receiver Darius Cannon (12-296 receiving, 3 TDs) has also been key in the passing game, hauling in five catches for 120 yards and a touchdown and is a kick/punt return specialist as well.
It’ll be a huge test, again, for a Trojan defense that is giving up 30.8 points per game -- White County averages 39.8 ppg -- but Bishop said it’s improving each week.
“You’ve got to go into things and see where your strengths and weaknesses are and see what they do and do best,” Bishop said about the Warriors’ offense. “You try to make some adjustments how you can. We had to make some adjustments in the middle of the game last week with some personnel and I think that helped us some. We’re still trying to learn our players. They have a very talented senior class, J. Ben is a four-year starter, so one way or the other, whether he’s playing or not playing, we have a plan that actually covers both situations. We feel pretty good about where we are, it’s just a matter of executing, making tackles and not letting them beat you deep.”
The Trojans entered the season losing the majority of their offense and defense and it took a brutal non-region schedule (Paulding, Stephens County, Hart County and Chestatee) for things to start jelling together. Over the last two weeks, the offense has gone from averaging 9.3 points per game to 23.8 and has churned out more than 800 yards and 90 points.
“As everybody knew, we were young going in and had no opportunities whatsoever for these kids to learn how to play the game,” Bishop said. “A lot were in different positions. I think it’s better, in my opinion, to play somebody very good and lose and know these are the things you’ve got to fix, than maybe play somebody that’s not very good and win and think you’re better than you are -- especially with a young team. For me to see that and see the growth every week has been tremendous.”
Bishop and his staff have made changes to the offense, and although he didn’t exactly reveal what those changes are, he somewhat alluded to it. No worries, though, it still resembles Bishop’s iconic wing-T attack.
“We had to make some adjustments to things that we have done in the past,” Bishop said. "I’ve brought a little different philosophy on how we line things up and run things. We had done the same thing for six years in the wing-T. This year, early on, we realized there’s just no way that we can do what we had been doing. So, we had to make a little adjustment. It has been a big help to us.
Clark Howell has been the Trojans’ go-to back, as expected, rushing for 735 yards on 99 carries and nine touchdowns. Kevin Rochester also has been a bright light, rushing 61 times for 366 yards and five scores.
“It’s plug and play,” Cokely said about North Hall’s offense. “It’s the same as it has been offensively scheme-wise since I’ve been here… just different players. It just seems like every year they have really good players, and this year isn’t any different. We don’t see this type of offense much anymore. We have to take it six weeks out not six days out. That’s kind of always been my approach with the wing-T. So, yeah, they’re going to score, we’re going to score, but we really respect what they do, respect how they coach and know it’s going to be a tough hard-fought game.”
The game will change the landscape of Region 7-3A. If White County wins, they’ll hold the tiebreaker over North Hall, and if the Trojans win, they’ll stay at the top of the region standings.
“We actually had that conversation earlier this week,” Bishop said. “The one thing that I’ve told them since last week is every Friday is the most important game of the season. I told them if you want to win a region championship, not that it can’t be done, but the facts are everybody picked White County to be No. 1 in the region and you have an opportunity to go out there and play. We don’t typically play well in Cleveland, so I’ve challenged them that this is going to be the best game we’ve ever played in Cleveland. They responded, 'hey, how about this is the best game we’ve ever played, coach.' That’s kind of their attitude and motto right now. They are ready to get after it. So, I’m pleased where their mental side is right now.”
Cokely, on the other hand, said how his team plays is all that matters.
“We just want to go 1-0 this week, and that’s how we approach all of them,” Cokely said. “We can’t turn the ball over against anybody, especially this game. So, it’s going to matter how we play, but as far as the region goes, I don’t even have the schedule posted in my office right now. I just don’t think that’s what we need. We need to concentrate on this game and when it’s over, concentrate on West Hall. These things almost never turn out the way we think they will. So, it makes no sense for me to worry about it. I’ve got to figure out what we can do to give ourselves a chance to win this week. But, yeah, it’s more fun this week.”