In August, Bulloch Academy traveled to Sparta to meet GISA Class AAA megapower Stratford Academy in the John Hancock Preseason Kickoff Classic.
The Gators, in just their second year in the league’s top classification, were understandably apprehensive.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Bulloch head coach Ronnie Hodges. “We were going up against the big boys from Macon.”
At the end of the night, the Eagles nipped the Gators 21-20 in the hard-fought scrimmage.
“We held our own,” said Hodges. “It gave the kids a lot of confidence. We told the boys that there was a possibility that we would see this team again. Now, here we are.”
Bulloch (8-2) travels to Macon today to battle Stratford (9-1) in the opening round of the playoffs. Many might see the contest as a David vs. Goliath struggle, but not Hodges.
“That hasn’t even crossed my mind,” he said. “I have never gone into a game that I didn’t think my team could win. If you think you’re going to get beat, you will. That’s not my attitude or the attitude of any of our players.”
Stratford is ranked second in the state and has posted some pretty impressive numbers. Still, Hodges contends, they can be beaten.
“They are a well-coached team,” he said. “They have a lot of depth, but they’ve got weaknesses and it’s up to us to take advantage of those.”
The Eagles have a run-oriented offense and a pair of 1,000-yard rushers to prove it.
Through 10 games, the Eagles have scored 351 points, gained 3,248 yards on the ground and only 626 through the air. Stratford runs from an I-formation backfield and is led by tailbacks Austin Simmons and Ken Spears. Simmons has 1,395 yards and 17 touchdowns while Spears has 996 yards and 13 TDs.
“They’ve got good running backs, no doubt about that,” said Hodges. “What makes them go is that they have very good offensive linemen. They are fundamentally sound and know who to block.”
The Gator defense will have to bring its ‘A’ game to control the Eagles.
“We’re going to play just like we’ve been playing for 10 games,” said Hodges. “When you get to this point of the season, you don’t change too much. If you do, you get confusion among your players and you’ve had it. We’re going to use our keys and try to man up with them.”
The Bulloch defense has excelled this season, holding opponents to an average of 133 yards rushing, 103 passing and 15 points per game. The hard-hitting BA bunch has caused 42 fumbles, recovered 20 of them and intercepted nine passes.
Senior linebacker Dillan Finch leads the squad with 49 solos, 45 assists, three tackles for loss, one sack, three pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. Senior lineman Caleb Bohannon has 43 individual stops, 35 assists, seven tackles for loss, four sacks and two fumble recoveries. Other leaders include senior linebacker Codi Johnson (38, 31), junior linebacker Loy Waters (35, 22) and junior cornerback Harrison Averitt (29, 19).
Defensively, Stratford has allowed 1,033 yards rushing, 1,566 yards passing and 194 points. Senior linebacker R.C. Brown leads the Eagle defense with 69 individual tackles and 51 assists while junior linebacker Greer Smith has 58 solo stops and 36 assists.
“They run a four-man front, no matter what type of offense a team throws at them,” said Hodges. “They have some good linebackers.”
Bulloch counters with a stable of four backs that have rushed for over 500 yards each and collectively scored 35 touchdowns.
Senior fullback Chris Young leads the charge with 715 yards and 10 TDs. Averitt has 604 yards and nine touchdowns. Senior Jaylen Evans is next with 564 yards and nine scores while quarterback Waters has 527 yards and seven touchdowns.
Waters has also thrown for 459 yards and four TDs. His favorite target, Evans, had 10 catches for 270 yards and three scores.
Stratford is a top-notch team but, according to Hodges, his Gators are ready for the challenge.
“We’ve had a great week of practice,” he said. “The boys have been loose, which is what we want. We’ve got to execute. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”