As the LaGrange High head coach prepares his team to face Sandy Creek Friday night at Callaway Stadium, he knows there won’t be many people giving the Grangers a chance.
“I told the guys today, heck, your parents probably think we’ve got no chance,“ Branch said. “I understand there’s probably nobody outside our room that really thinks we can win.”
That’s not a slam on the Grangers, rather it’s a testament to the dominance displayed by the Patriots this season.
The Patriots are 7-0 overall and 4-0 in Region 5-AAAA, and they’ve been the state’s top-ranked team since Day 1.
The Patriots, who won state championships in 2009 and 2010, haven’t just been winning games, they’ve been pummeling the competition into submission.
The Patriots are outscoring their opponents by an average score of 45-10, and they’ve yet to play a game where there was even a hint of suspense late.
Sandy Creek, Branch said, has no weakness on the field, or on the sideline.
“You face good teams with good players, and they also have a really good coaching staff,” Branch said. “They run a solid scheme on both sides of the ball. You can see they’re really coached up. You get good players really coached up, it is a huge challenge.”
As imposing as the Patriots are, though, Branch offers the assurance that his team will show up at 7:30 p.m. Friday fully prepared to compete and hopefully come away with a win.
“I’m sure most football people think we’re going to get run out of the stadium. We’ll accept that’s what people think,” Branch said. “There’s nothing we can do about it except show up Friday night and play like we’re capable of playing. We’re going to get off that bus Friday night, and we’ll see. They’ve got a lot of good players, but we’ve got some good players, too.”
Branch added that “I just figure every time you put on a silver helmet with a blue and white stripe and a star on it, I always think we can compete. I want our kids to think that way.”
While it’s been smooth sailing for the Patriots this season, there have been plenty of bumps in the road for the Grangers, especially of late.
The Grangers (4-3 overall, 3-1 in Region 5-AAAA) were cruising along with an unbeaten record in the region before falling to Fayette County 38-35 last week in overtime.
The Grangers not only lost the game, but they also lost two key starters - defensive lineman Dazmon Dunlap and running back/linebacker Benny Gray - to injury.
Those two players join a long list of key players who aren’t playing at the moment because of injuries, suspensions and transfers.
Branch said some younger players are working hard to get up to speed at those positions.
“Every week, we implement the newer guys in there,” Branch said. “Every week, they’re going to keep getting better.”
One of those young players, a freshman, has been taking snaps at running back this week.
That position has been hit particularly hard, with Gray and Mon Denson both out of the lineup.
That leaves senior Demoton Boyd as the Grangers’ lone running back with any varsity experience.
“We’re thin at running back,” Branch said. “We have Demoton, who I have full faith in. He’s a winner. He’s tough. But we’ve lost two of them. We had three running backs. Now we’re down to one. Going against that defense, that’s kind of tough.”
The Grangers still have plenty of weapons on offense, though, and they’ve been scoring points in bunches this season.
Even in last week’s loss, the Grangers managed to score three touchdowns in the final quarter to force overtime.
The Grangers have scored at least 30 points in six straight games, including 42 points in a loss to Thomson, which was ranked second in Class AAA at the time.
Junior quarterback Zach Giddens is having a terrific season, as is senior wide receiver Dee Smith, who has been a touchdown machine.
Replacing Gray will be a tall task, but Boyd has plenty of explosiveness in his own right.
“We have some guys that can make plays,” Branch said.
Branch said it will be critical for the offense not just to score points, but to sustain drives to keep Sandy Creek’s explosive offense on the sidelines.
“We really need our offense to move the ball,” Branch said. “Their offense is just a ticking time bomb. The best way for it not to explode is to be on the sidelines. So, a first down, is a huge play, because you get three more. Make that catch, get that yard, get that first down. I want them on the sideline.”
Whatever happens Friday, the Grangers will still control their own playoff fate.
If the Grangers win two of their final three regular-season games, they’ll be in the playoffs, and they’ve got a chance to make it even if they win just one of three games depending on what happens elsewhere in the region.
LaGrange finishes the regular season with games against Troup and Carrollton.
“We control our own destiny,” Branch said. “I think we’re good enough offensively to have a chance to beat anybody. Defensively, we’ve got to get better. If we keep practicing like we have been, we’ll get where we need to be.”