Perseverance has been the motto at Walnut Grove this season. The Warriors watched helplessly as player after player went down with key injuries in the early part of the season, but battled through the adversity to earn the school’s first spot in the state playoffs.
Now, the team healthy again, the Walton County school is playing at a high level as it prepares for the Class AAAAA opener on Friday at No. 8 Grady.
“These kids have kept persevering, they’ve kept working hard and they’ve hung in there,” coach Ben Reaves said. “It’s been a great life lesson for them. If you hang in there, things will work out.”
The Warriors (4-6) won three of their final five games and clinched their spot in the playoffs by beating Cedar Shoals 25-18 in the last game.
“I don’t know how good we are, but at least we’ll put our best players on the field this week,” Reaves said.
The trouble began when Isaiah Clark, a three-year starter at quarterback, broke his hand in the opener and missed six games. Freshman Colby Bell did a good job holding things together until Clark was able to return. Clark has thrown for 584 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 225 yards and three scores.
Walnut Grove also lost two wide receivers, a starting slotback and a three-starter at defensive end for extend periods of time. All are now back in the lineup and ready for the first-round match with Grady (9-1), whose only loss has come at No. 6 Ware County.
“Grady is big and fast and good,” Reaves said. “They’re well-coached and they’re good in a lot of spots. There’s not many negatives about them. We’re just excited about getting a chance to play and compete.”
Grady, in its third season under coach Eartwind Moreland, has bounced back nicely from the 0-11 season of 2013.The Gray Knights are looking for their first double-digit win season since 2010.
Grady is led by quarterback Caylin Newton, who has thrown for 2,832 yarsd and 29 touchdowns, and rushed for 830 yards and 11 touchdowns.
This will be the first meeting between Walnut Grove and Grady.
Here’s a look at five other interesting games scheduled for the first week of the playoffs:
Kell vs. Southwest DeKalb (Godfrey Stadium): No. 5 Kell (8-2) tied for first in rugged Region 7, but dropped to the third seed – and a road game – because of the tiebreaker. The Longhorns have lost only to No. 3 Carrollton and Class AAAAAAA Lassiter. Quarterback John Lampley leads the Kell offense with 1,432 yards and 13 touchdowns passing and has rushed for 332 yards and eight touchdowns. The defense is led by Tennessee commitment Solon Page III, who has 124 tackles and 18 tackles for loss.
Southwest DeKalb (5-5) has dedicated the season to the memory of coach Michael Tanks, who died of a stroke before the season began. The Panthers are led by quarterback Justin Tomlin, who has thrown for more than 1,600 yards, and rushed for more than 500 yards.
The two teams have met once before. Kell prevailed 19-14 in the first round of the playoffs in 2012. It was the final game coached by Southwest DeKalb’s Buck Godrey.
Warner Robins at Griffin: This has been a very un-Warner Robins like season. The Demons (3-7) struggled early against a difficult non-region schedule, but won two of their final three games for first-year coach Mike Chastain. Warner Robins has two productive running backs in Javian Bradford-Jackson (722 yards) and Jarius Burnett (640 yards).
Griffin averages 48.3 points per game behind all-state quarterback candidate Tylan Morton. The senior has thrown for 3,610 yards and 34 touchdowns. Running back Santo Dunn is healthy again and has rushed for 855 yards and 11 touchdowns.
These two old-school powers have met four times, with Warner Robins holding a 3-1 lead. The Demons won a pair of regular-season games in 2000 and 2001. Griffin prevailed in a first-round playoff game in 1998 and Warner Robins beat the Bears for the Class AAA championship in 1976 when it was the highest classification in the state.
Clarke Central at Carver (Lakewood): Clarke Central (6-4) is back in the playoffs under first-year coach David Perno. The Gladiators have shown the ability to put points on the board behind quarterback Jack Mangel and running back Jonathan Sewell.
Carver (8-2) has an explosive offense behind quarterback Octavious Battle (1,855 yards, 12 TDs passing; 472 yards rushing) and freshman running back Joquavious Marks (1,098 yards rushing).
These two schools have never met.
Veterans at Starr’s Mill: Veterans (5-5) earned a playoff spot on its upset win over Thomas County Central. The Warhawks are led by quarterback Leyton Pinckney and running back Amarrian Brown.
Starr’s Mill (6-4) finished the season tied for first in Region 3 with Griffin and Whitewater and emerged as the No. 1 thanks to the tiebreaker. The Panthers played an aggressive non-region schedule and take a three-game winning streak into the playoffs. Joey Deluca does a good job running the offense; he’s thrown for 456 yards and five touchdowns and run for 308 yards and three touchdowns. But the real horse is junior Cole Gilley, who has rushed for 1,381 yards and 20 touchdowns. Only once has Gilley failed to rush for more than 100 yards.
This will be the first meeting between the two schools.
Whitewater at Bainbridge: Whitewater (8-2) tied for first in Region 3, but dropped to the No. 3 seed based on the tiebreaker. The Wildcats have won five straight games, one of them against Starr’s Mill. Whitewater quarterback Stone Kasten has thrown for 1,135 yarsd and 12 touchdowns and Isaiah Montgomery has rushed for 1,017 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Whitewater will be asked to slow down Bainbridge running back Dameon Pierce, who ran for 257 yards last week against Warner Robins. Pierce has rushed for 1,752 yards and 16 touchdowns. Quarterback Brett McLaughlin ensures that the team is not one-dimensional with an accurate arm.
This will be the first meeting between the two schools.