If Southeast Bulloch is going to advance in the Class AAA state football playoffs it is going to have to shut down one of the top running backs in the state.
The Yellow Jackets (7-3) will host Westminster (6-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and it’s safe to say this will be the biggest challenge of the year for Coach Pat Collins’ team.
Westminster, a school which like Southeast Bulloch has two state championships on its football resume, went 12-2 last year and reached the state semi-finals for the first time since 1996.
The Wildcats opened the season ranked No. 3 in the state, but due to three last minute losses enter the playoffs as the No. 4 seed from Region 4, but riding a three-game winning streak.
Westminster finished second behind No. 2 ranked Blessed Trinity (9-0-1) in the region’s Division B. Blessed Trinity knocked off the Wildcats, 24-10, during the regular season.
Zay Malcome, a 5-foot-6, 165 pound junior, does it all for the Wildcats who are a run-oriented team. He was the Class AAA Offensive Player of the Year last year on a team that had 22 players earn college scholarships, 16 at the Division I level including Quentin Bennett who signed with Georgia Southern.
Last week Malcome ran for 197 yards in a 35-18 win over North Clayton. Malcome broke the school career rushing record as he pushed his three-year total to 3,248 yards including 876 this season on 118 carries.
Malcome also averages 26.4 yards per punt return, 20.1 on kick returns, has two interceptions as a defensive back, has completed his lone pass attempt and has caught seven passes for 25 yards.
Coach Gerry Romberg is in his 24th season at the Atlanta school and has a career mark of 175-103. Also, Wildcats running backs coach T.J. Anderson played at Georgia Southern from 2001-2004.
Wildcat assistant coach Joe Sturniolo, who is also director of football operations, described Westminister as “a run first team that can pass when necessary.”
Quarterbacks Rankin Woley and Keller Harper combined to complete 63-of-126 passes for 768 yards and eight touchdowns. Led by Malcome the Wildcats average 196 yards per game rushing with 1960 yards on 360 attempts.
Woley has signed to play baseball scholarship at LSU while Harper is the state’s leading golfer in Class AAA.
“Last year if there was a break it rolled our way,” Sturniolo said. “This year those breaks seemed to even out.
“We lost to Laney on a touchdown pass with 50 seconds to play. We lost to Therell on a touchdown pass with four seconds on the clock,” Sturniolo said, “and we lost to Elbert County on literally the last play of the game.
“A total of about a minute of play is the difference between finishing the regular season 9-1 versus 6-4. None of those are excuses, just an explanation of what happened.”
While playing on the road represents a challenge it should also be noted that Westminster is 5-1 on the road this season while going 1-3 at home.
The kicking game in the person of Penn State commit Blake Gillkin has been a strength with 85 percent of Gillkin’s kickoffs being touchbacks. He averages 43.3 yards per punt with 60 percent of his punts being downed inside the 20.