It’s time for the showdown

Published 11:57 pm Thursday, October 12, 2017

By Kevin Eckleberry

HOGANSVILLE – It’s not technically a region-championship game.

Whatever happens tonight in Franklin between the Callaway Cavaliers and Heard County Braves, there will be a lot of football left to be played before a Region 5-AA champion is crowned.

What is clear, though, is that the team that walks away victorious tonight will be the prohibitive favorite to win the region title and secure the number one seed for the state playoffs.

It’s a matchup that features two teams with lofty aspirations.

Heard County, which is led by dynamic senior quarterback Emory Jones, is 5-1, with its only loss coming to a team from Alabama.

Callaway improved to 6-0 with last week’s win over Lamar County, and it has won a remarkable 25 consecutive regular-season games.

It’s a long-standing rivalry that dates back to the days when Hogansville and Heard County used to play, and Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins expects a big-time challenge from head coach Tim Barron’s Braves.

“Coach Barron has a great staff,” Wiggins said. “They’ve been together a long time, and they have a lot of tradition. This Friday night, it’ll be a great opponent. These kids know one another, and both schools have a lot of tradition. So it’ll be a physical, hard-fought ballgame.”

Callaway, which is ranked second in this week’s Georgia Sports Writers Association Class AA poll, hasn’t lost a regular-season game since it fell to LaGrange in the 2015 season opener.

Callaway hasn’t lost to Heard County since 2012 when it lost a 43-37 shootout at Callaway Stadium.

Since then, Callaway has won four straight games in the series, and that included a 24-14 home win a year ago.

None of that has any impact on what will happen tonight, though.

Led by Jones, who has committed to Ohio State, the Braves are an explosive offensive team, and they’ve also been stingy on defense.

“They’ve had a lot of really good ball teams over the years,” Wiggins said. “This season, Emory Jones is one of the best players in the country. He’s the leader of their offense, and he’s a dynamic player on the field that can do so many things.”

Last year, Jones’ season was derailed when he suffered an injury in the first quarter of the Callaway game, and he didn’t play again that year.

Heard County has a powerful running game led by Aaron Beasley, and Jaden Moreland is a big-play wide receiver.

“Aaron Beasley, a tailback, he’s a big kid that really runs downhill, and he adds another dimension to the team,” Wiggins said. “And their offensive line is very physical. So offensively, they’ve got a great football team. They make play, and they run the ball well. They’re physical, yet very explosive with Emory and their receivers.”

Heard County’s defense has been getting the job done as well, with linebacker Andrew Leak among the top players on that side of the ball.

“On defense, Andrew Leak is one of the best football players that we’ve seen this year, and does a great job at linebacker,” Wiggins said. “They’ve got a really good defensive line that runs to the ball, and they play physical.”

Callaway has plenty of play-makers of its own.

It’s a roster that includes nearly 20 players who have already received college offers, and that number will grow.

Callaway’s offense, under the direction of long-time offensive coordinator Matt Napier, has been clicking, with DJ Atkins, Cartavious Bigsby and Qua Hines combining to run for more than 1,000 yards in six games, and fullback Gabriel Moultrie has been a threat as well.

Senior quarterback Kedrick Ramsey, who has started every game this season, has grown into the role and has been terrific, making plays through the air and on the ground.

Jacob Freeman has provided big plays in the passing game with four long touchdown catches, and Courtney Williams is a favorite target of Ramsey’s as well.

Callaway’s offensive line figured to be a strength of the team and it has been, with junior Keiondre Jones leading the way.

Jones, a three-year starter, is one of the state’s most heavily recruited players, and he has offers from a long list of big-time programs.

Callaway’s defense, which will be tasked with looking to slow down Jones and company, has given up 13 or fewer points in four games this season, and that included back-to-back shutouts over LaGrange and Handley to start the year.

Callaway’s defense received a lift last week with the return of senior Lichon Terrell, who had missed the previous two games with an injury.

Terrell, who has committed to Western Kentucky, is a disruptive presence on the defensive line.

Linebacker Jonathan Leonard is Callaway’s leading tackler, and defensive backs Courtney Williams (Cincinnati) and DQ Wilkerson (Mercer) have both made college commitments.

It’s a defense that doesn’t just stop opponents, but also scores points.

Kobe Jackson, Jonathan Leonard, and Tely Fanning have each scored defensive touchdowns this season.

If it comes down to the kicking game, Callaway is in good shape, with senior Noah Stephens handling those duties.

Stephens has been nearly perfect on extra-point attempts, and his ability to pin teams deep in their own territory with his punts has been big as well.

In the return game, DQ Wilkerson showed what he can do when he returned two punt returns for a touchdown against Columbus.

Wilkerson also returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the opener against LaGrange.

Those players have helped the Cavaliers remain unbeaten despite facing a challenging schedule.

In non-region play, Callaway played five teams in higher classifications, including a Handley team that won a state title in Alabama a year ago.

Last week, Callaway began its region schedule with a 48-7 win over Lamar County.

“As a coach, you want to get better each week,” Wiggins said. “I think that’s a big factor in being successful down the road. Good football teams get better every week. We work hard at practice each day to do that. We’re a lot better now than when we played Northside-Columbus in the scrimmage. There’s been some ups and downs in our season, and there’s been things that we overcame, but I feel like we’ve gotten better each week.

“We’ve found out a little more about ourselves, and we found out a little bit about our strengths, and our weaknesses. We found roles for kids, and that’s part of being successful. We’ve just got to continue to work hard.”

Heard County is hungry to turn things around in the series, although Barron knows it will be a formidable task.

“They can beat you in so many different ways,” Barron said. “A special teams score, a defensive score. They have these six to eight-minute periods where they create turnover and then capitalize off them. They’re explosive. You have to play them tough and if you make a mistake, you’re going to pay for it.”

Wiggins said playing a clean game will be critical if his team wants to come away with the win.

“When we get to the game Friday night, we’ll have to play physical and limit mistakes,” Wiggins said. “Turnovers are a big factor in any ballgame, and you play a team like Heard County, you really have to minimize those.”