Colonels, Wildcats meet in rivalry game to begin region slate

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There are few things in life Cass head coach Bobby Hughes enjoys more than seeing the happiness on his players' faces following a win. If that means he sometimes has to put them in line during practice, then that's what he'll do.

Earlier this week as Cass prepared for a Bartow County rivalry game against Woodland that also happens to open the Region 7-AAAAA slate for both teams, Hughes got after his players to send a message.

"We had a lull in practice the other day, where I really got fired up," he said. "I told them, I'm fired up, because it means so much to me to see them after the game like they were at Pepperell, like they were after the Forsyth Central game with the looks on their faces and the joy.

"That doesn't just happen. There's certain things that go on during the course of practice that lead up to that. We weren't having a very good day, and I had to change the momentum. I think they got the picture."

Woodland head coach Tony Plott generally takes a softer approach to his coaching style during practice, but between the upcoming game and the 34-28 loss to East Hall last week, it's likely he was also a little more animated over the past few days.

Or perhaps, his players understand the importance of Friday's home game and know a repeat of last week's performance won't be nearly good enough to beat their rival.

"I think our focus has been better; I think our intensity at practice has been better; and our energy has been better," Plott said. "I think they realize we're playing Cass, first of all, and that it is a region football game, but it's also a chance for us to go out and perform in front of our home crowd. I think that makes a lot of difference to these kids."

Cass fell in last year's meeting by a 17-7 final score. Despite hitting the road this time, the Colonels will likely bring more confidence into this meeting. Not only is Cass coming off a 15-7 victory over Forsyth Central but also the Colonels will be aware of the significant number of starters the Wildcats graduated from last season's group.

That being said, Woodland still has plenty of the same characteristics that the program has displayed since Plott took over.

"They're still doing what they've traditionally done over the last few years, which makes you spend a lot of time on assignment football in practice," Hughes said. "To be honest, it was good for us. Last week, Forsyth Central was a little different, but it was assignment-oriented. We had to spend a lot of time having guys on assignments defensively. Leading into this week, that helped us a little bit.

"They're still very explosive with their backs. They have a fullback who can run the trap continuously, a bigger back who can run that power, and a quarterback who always does a good job carrying out their fakes and running their quarterback sweep and bootleg game."

On the other side, Cass will look to continue to take the steps needed to improve its offensive efficiency. The Colonels have scored just 22 combined points in two games with all of those either coming off turnovers or being set up by big plays on special teams.

Woodland returns just one starting defensive back in Jaden Johnson, but the Wildcats' ability to wreak havoc up front could cause the Colonels some problems. 

"They are traditionally always good up front," Hughes said. "They do a great job. Coach [Donnie] Scott does a great job with their defensive line. Of course, their secondary is new. They had four really, really talented kids playing in the secondary. They're still moving between a four-man front and a three-man front, interchanging that, so you have to spend time preparing for both."

To begin the season, Cass has proved to have the same energy and toughness on the defensive side of the ball that the Colonels have had in recent years. While the offense remains a work in progress, Plott knows Cass has the athletes capable of breaking off big plays.

"Defensively, they're the same," Plott said. "They're an odd front, 3-3 stack, very well coached and very aggressive. They do a great job over there.

"Offensively, they've kind of changed a little bit. They're more of a Wing-T offense, and they do a little bit of everything. You'll see some spread stuff and some I-stuff. They have athletes they're trying to get the ball to. They're doing a really good job there also."

Despite being 6-9 overall in the series, Woodland will enter this matchup having won two straight. The Wildcats, though, have no reason to underestimate the Colonels.

"They're a good football team, and we can't look past them," Plott said. "Definitely with the performance we had last week, we can't look past anybody."

The most disappointing thing about Woodland's road defeat last week was the first half showing that put the Wildcats into a 21-0 hole at halftime, but credit Plott's young group for bouncing back in the second half before coming up short.

"Our kids didn't give up, and it would have been real easy for them to hang their heads and sleepwalk through the second half," Plott said. "They didn't. They came out in the second half with the determination to take it one play at a time, to play hard on every play. They did, and that's something we can take away from it.

"Hopefully, our kids learned something from it. Our kids responded, made it close and we had a chance to win late in the game, we just fell short. With a group this young, everything is a learning experience. Last week was no different."

Overall, turnovers were arguably the biggest factor in Woodland's loss and Cass' win from last week. The Wildcats put the ball on the ground twice against the Vikings in key spots, while the Colonels racked up a total of five takeaways in their victory.

There's a strong possibility that an evenly matched game like Friday's is shaping up to be will also be decided by the turnover battle.

"It's always an X-factor," Hughes said. "You stress taking care of the football when you're on offense and you're always stressing, 'Cause turnovers, cause turnovers,' defensively.

"A lot of times they say it's coach speak, but turnovers are such a large part of the game. Not just the change of possession but also the momentum, field position and dealing with young kids and the mental aspect of it. Turnovers have a lot to do with the ebb and flow of the game."