Heath Webb laid out his plan for the Lumpkin County football program after a brutal 49-21 loss to Oconee County in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs in 2022.
"We needed to feel what a Final 4 team felt like," Webb said after last year's loss to Oconee. "Our fans got to see it, our parents got to see it, so now when we move forward as a program, our community understands we're going to have to pony up on the nutrition side of things and get bigger and stronger in the weight room."
Webb, his staff and players have followed the plan to a tee. They are bigger, faster, stronger and just dang good.
The formula has catapulted the Indians to the top five in every statistical category in Class 3A, the program's first Region 7-3A championship, first undefeated season, and first second-round playoff berth.
"We've talked at length how that game materialized last year and how it would shape who we would be moving forward," Webb said. "They they bullied us. They pushed us around, and they beat us up. We said never again, and we used that game a year ago as a motivating factor for our offseason. We've used that to build our personality as a football team ... to flip the tables and be the bully. And to this point, we've done it."
The Indians were the bullies of Region 7-3A, extinguishing any thought they would lose the perceived big games. They knocked off Wesleyan, outlasted White County and Dawson County, pushed over the rest on the regular season schedule, and demolished Gordon Lee 52-6 in the first round of the playoffs last week.
The Indians will get their chance to avenge last season's loss to the Warriors on Friday at The Burial Grounds in Dahlonega. Kick-off is set for 7:30 p.m.
"I see a really strong senior class," Oconee County coach Ben Hall said about the Indians. "They have a lot of seniors that have played a lot of football for them, and they're playing with a lot of confidence. When you win, that momentum just keeps building. They are playing really well right now."
The Warriors aren't the same team that made the Class 3A semifinals last season. They have several new faces on both sides of the ball, and CJ Jones, the back who had six carries for five touchdowns against the Indians last season, has graduated.
But Webb isn't buying the "rebuild mode" that the Warriors have been in most of the season.
"It's game 12, they're rebuilt," Webb said. "If you had the ability to watch their Game 11 film, you can certainly say they've rebuilt. They're big, strong, physical kids. That's exactly what we expect out of them. They are a perennial playoff team that goes deep in the playoffs every year. I want to see our progress. How much progress we have made in a year compared to those guys."
The matchup that will be key for both teams is obvious—the Lumpkin County offense vs. the Oconee County defense.
The Indians average over 40 points per game, second in Class 3A, behind the classification's top rusher, Mason Sullens (1,849 yards, 10 100-yard games, 29 TD). The team's bread and butter has been the ground attack, averaging 350 yards per game.
The Warriors are giving up close to 25 ppg, 30th in Class 3A, but have surrendered just 93 points in their last six games.
Hall understands the stress the Indians' offense will put on his defense.
"(Cal) Faulkner does a great job of keeping defenses honest," Hall said. "With the read game, he's a threat to pull it, and he's a long athlete that does a lot of good things on the perimeter, and they have a run game that loosens the box. I'd like to think we're pretty balanced on defense, and we need to stop the run first. It starts with containing the quarterback and tackling the Sullens kid, who does a great job breaking tackles."
Webb sees the game as a battle in the trenches.
"I think their style of play is what concerns me the most," he said. "It's a line of scrimmage ballgame when you play Oconee. So, we feel like we've built our line of scrimmage throughout the offseason and over the last 11 games. But they are bigger than us. So, can we overcome that? Can we match up with kids bigger than us and win those battles?"
As for the Warriors' offense vs. the Indians' defense, that should be very interesting as well. The Warriors have been somewhat balanced on offense but are definitely run-heavy.
They have two backs, Caden Wood and Mac Ricks, with over 500 yards rushing and over 16 touchdowns. Jr. QB Titus Watkins has been injured for the last three games, so Ricks has taken charge of the offense.
"It's run, run, run and play action," Webb said about the Oconee offense. "We know those shots are coming and can't fall asleep because they run the football so frequently. We have to have discipline against them."
Hall said he's not sure how his offense stacks up against the Indian defense, ranked eighth in Class 3A in points allowed (15.73 ppg), but wants to maintain balance as much as possible.
"There are a lot of seniors there, and they're physical on the front and have good players in the secondary. So, we're just going to have to really let the game come to us and work to be as balanced as possible, not only run-pass but strong to weak and left to right. We just try to maintain balance, throw the ball when we can, and keep things off balance with play-action passes and screens."
KEYS TO THE GAME
Hall says they have done a good job of avoiding costly penalties and avoided turning the ball over this year. He says those will be keys on Friday.
"We have to avoid turning the ball over, play strong defense, and work to win the special teams," he said. "So, if we do that, we have a chance to beat a very good Lumpkin team that is playing with tremendous momentum. I know that the entire community is excited. We're following their first-ever play win, so we'll be coming into an electric environment on Friday."
As for Webb, he says it's going to "win the slugfest."
"That's the biggest part of it," Webb said. "Can we go toe-to-toe with a big physical football team? We can't turn the ball over. We have to try and create takeaways, and in a slugfest, special teams will be key. Can we make a special teams play that could be the difference in the game?"