Class 4A's top 2 ranked teams meet as Cartersville hosts Woodward

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If Class 4A adhered to 1A's way of doing things, there's a chance Cartersville and Woodward Academy would be meeting in just over two weeks for the state championship. Instead, the top two ranked teams in the classification will meet in the quarterfinals.

It's pretty early for the highest ranked teams in 4A to meet. But because none of the classifications 2A and above seed their playoff brackets the way 1A does, matchups like this pop up virtually every year. (Only 3A's Peach County-Cedar Grove game also matches No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the state this week.)

Granted, the Power Ratings might not have deemed Cartersville and Woodward the two best teams in 4A, but the powerhouses certainly wouldn't be meeting this early.

The Canes and War Eagles bring identical 12-0 records into Friday's game at Weinman Stadium. They are the only undefeated teams left in the classification.

"Probably athletically, top-to-bottom, as good as any team we've seen," Cartersville head coach Conor Foster said of the opposition. "They're right up there with Sandy Creek across the board. They're very long, athletic and have speed all over the place with their skill guys."

It's true. Woodward has no shortage of Division-I talent on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Mike Wright is committed to Central Florida. The senior accounted for five touchdowns in last week's win over St. Pius X. Wright has thrown for just over 2,000 yards with 29 touchdowns and four interceptions, while adding 515 yards and 10 scores on the ground this season.

Sophomore running back Damari Alston has four D-I offers, including West Virginia. He has 819 rushing yards and is tied with Wright for the team lead with 10 rushing touchdowns. Ambe Campbell, a Furman commit, leads the receiving corps with 649 yards and 11 touchdowns, but four other players have between 353 and 227 receiving yards.

"They throw a lot of different bodies at you," Foster said. "They use some two tight end sets, some empty sets; their back catches the ball coming out of the backfield. Offensively, they present a lot of unique challenges.

"Their quarterback is really, really dynamic passing the ball and also one of the fastest players we've seen on film all year. Even when you're able to get some pressure on him, he is able to tuck the ball and burn you. You've got to throw some different looks at him and hope to create some confusion, but he's a guy who has been playing a lot of football over the years."

The War Eagles defense is also brimming with talented players. Linebacker Aaron Washington is headed to Bowling Green, and he leads the team in tackles and tackles for loss, while also picking off three passes. Fellow linebacker Jacorrei Turner is a three-star recruit with a dozen offers, and cornerback Hunter Sellers is committed to Pittsburgh.

"They're really fast and physical," Foster said of the Woodward defense. "They don't play as many guys both ways as we do. Their guys that do go both ways, we need to stay in there with them for four quarters and try to wear them down. We've just got to stay in the fight.

"Early on, that kind of superior athletic ability can be a little bit tough to handle. If we can weather the storm and stay in it, I think we'll find a way to make some good things happen."

With all that talent, it's hard to believe Woodward slumped to a 7-5 finish last year. It was the most losses the War Eagles have suffered in a single season since 2005.

Under ninth-year head coach John Hunt, Woodward returned to prominence this season with a fifth region title in six years. The War Eagles have now reached the quarterfinals in each of those five seasons but haven't made the state title game in any of the previous four.

Cartersville is responsible for 25% of that, having defeated Woodward 25-16 in the 2016 Elite Eight. The 11-point win was the Canes' smallest margin of victory that year, as the team put together a second straight unbeaten season.

Foster, who was the Cartersville defensive coordinator on that team, sees a lot of similarities between this Woodward team and the one the Canes defeated three years ago.

"They scheme folks up, but they also work within their scheme, similar to us," Foster said. "Year in and year out, there are tweaks we're going to make in order to be successful based on the personnel that we have. But what they want to do, their philosophy, on both sides of the ball hasn't wavered. I think, that allows kids, especially young kids, to play fast. ...

"I think that continuity from the coaching staff, and then the continuity from a philosophy standpoint has allowed them to have a bounce-back year."

This season, Cartersville has played by far the tougher overall schedule. The Canes have wins over Cherokee, which reached the 7A second round; Allatoona, which will host a 6A quarterfinal; and Sandy Creek, which is a heavy favorite to reach the 4A semifinals.

Woodward, though, does boast a road victory over two-time defending state champion Blessed Trinity. The War Eagles pulled off a 13-10 triumph back on Sept. 6 that would likely qualify as the best win of any team in 4A.

That being said, whoever emerges victorious this week at Weinman Stadium could possibly lay claim to the most impressive win of the season. While Foster doesn't think those past results will matter much when Friday's game kicks off, he believes his team will find a way to replicate them.

"Every game is unique, so I can't necessarily say that gives our guys an advantage," Foster said of the team's experience in big games. "But our guys have been in some tough situations, and they believe we are going to find a way to get it done. We've been trailing in some big games — early and late — and we've found ways to persevere, found ways to get stops, found ways to force some turnovers and found some ways to score big points in big moments. ...

"Our guys have found a way all year. I'm just really proud of our team, and I believe in them. I love them very much, and I'm excited to go out there and see them bring it on Friday night."