By Chris Coltermann
The results were the same a year ago for East Coweta following Friday’s rivalry game against crosstown Newnan.
But the opportunities are much different for the Indians than a year ago.
Helmets and shoulder pads were being collected and a season that began with promise ended in disappointment.
That’s not so much the case for East Coweta. At least if the Indians can overlook their record during the regular season in 2018.
“I’ve been pleased with the way the kids, the way they have responded from last week. It’s not an end all, be all. It’s a rivalry game,” East Coweta head coach John Small said. “We’ve got a lot to play for. It’s been, I believe, eight years since East Coweta’s won a playoff game. So these guys have a chance to leave their legacy as a senior group.”
A 3-7 regular season, of course, is an unsightly blemish among a program that had only finished under .500 one time since 1987.
But the Indians also managed to join seven of the 10 opponents they played this fall by advancing to the Class 7A state playoffs. Of the two that didn’t, they include a 6-4 Wheeler team that began the season with five consecutive victories prior to the Region 2-7A schedule.
It’s where East Coweta was a year ago, going from 4-1 to a 5-5 finish, something that Small was adamant toward fixing through a non-region schedule that had opponents eventually finishing a combined 36-14 overall. They include a team that is headed to Drake Stadium this week to face Newnan (6-4) in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs in McEachern (7-3).
By way of last Friday’s disappointing 28-16 loss to the Cougars at home, East Coweta heads to Marietta to face a 5-5 Blue Devils team that managed to stay the course last week while winning its regular-season finale over Kennesaw Mountain despite missing injured star quarterback Harrison Bailey.
Following a 44-22 victory over Kennesaw Mountain, Blue Devils head coach Richard Morgan told the Marietta Daily Journal that he wasn’t sure if Bailey would be able to make it back in time for Friday’s game.
Marietta freshman Tyler Hughes was 5 of 7 passing for 78 yards and a touchdown, as the Blue Devils rushed for a season-high 222 yards behind junior Kimani Vidal’s 214 with five touchdowns.
The Blue Devils may have to shift gears again this week despite excelling in the passing game with Bailey for the first nine. Junior Arik Gilbert has a whopping 84 receptions for 1,141 yards and 12 touchdowns, but hasn’t scored in three weeks. He only had two catches in the win over KMHS.
Marietta has four receivers with 31 or more catches. Vidal’s 224 rushing yards in last week’s win made up one fourth of this year’s rushing total, but while still averaging 6.5 yards a carry.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who it is, you have to line up and play,” Small said. “They played a very tough schedule as well early on. They’ve got some explosive kids at receiver. The Vidal kid is a good running back. Defensively, they’re sound in what they do.”
East Coweta’s 2018 season has become a routine of playing tough opponents starting with Class 5A opponents Kell and Carrollton, both of which finished 8-2. Lowndes went 7-3 as did McEachern, the No. 3 seed out of Region 3-7A where there was little room for North Cobb (6-4), which got left out of the postseason picture.
The Indians had similar opportunities as a year earlier against Newnan in a second straight meeting where opponents traded leads at least four times in the first half.
After taking advantage of opportunities on Newnan punts, first on a short kick and the latter on a block, a 13-7 lead failed to hold. Three interceptions set up two Cougars touchdowns on short fields, including a go-ahead score with 29 seconds left in the second quarter.
East Coweta drove the third quarter kickoff behind senior Gerald Green, who hovered near the 100-yard mark but while needing well over 20 carries. A march just inside Newnan’s 10-yard line stalled, however, forcing the Indians to settle for a field goal and their final advantage of a slim 16-15 lead.
Newnan used a short drive off an East Coweta interception, then struck again on a 67-yard pass off a screen to senior Woody Waters to pull away.
Small pointed to himself first and foremost, however, when it came to the loss.
“We didn’t play well enough to win and you have to tip your hat to Newnan. As a head coach, I take full responsibility. It starts with me. It’s my job getting these kids ready to play,” he said. “It was a lot of factors. Defensively, I thought we played great. Offensively, I thought we played poor and everybody contributed to that. It wasn’t just one guy.”
Marietta began its season with a similar gauntlet in non-region play, taking on defending Class 5A champion Rome and Class 7A power Grayson in addition to facing out-of-state opponents Our Lady of Good Counsel in Maryland and St. John’s of Washington, D.C.
The Blue Devils have been state-ranked all but one week of the regular season, going 4-1 over its Region 3-7A schedule with a lone loss to unbeaten Hillgrove in a game where the team lost Bailey to his injury.
The last time East Coweta advanced to the second round of the state playoffs in 2012, the Indians also took an overall record below .500 into the postseason, knocking off Newton 25-20 on the road.
Since then, the program has come up short in the first round four more times — including three consecutive seasons where East Coweta posted 8-2 records during the regular season.
“We’re excited about the opportunity we have to play. Last year we were sitting at home. You’re going to play good people every week in the playoffs and our kids should be used to that.” Small said. “We get a chance to regroup. Everybody’s 0-0.”