Two weeks ago, it was mid-October and East Paulding was arguably the most talented winless team in the state. Now, November has arrived and the Raiders will carry a two-game winning streak into the regular season’s final month.
While East Paulding could still produce a .500 finish in Region 7-AAAAA, the Raiders hopes of returning to the Class 5A state playoffs have been realistically squashed for weeks. Some teams with postseason aspirations might have packed it in after falling to 0-6 overall and 0-4 in the region.
But East Paulding hasn’t sulked. It shook off the disappointment and embarked on a different mission: End the season with four consecutive wins. Well, the Raiders are halfway there.
Woodland will look to end East Paulding’s recent run of success this week. The Wildcats (1-7, 0-6) haven’t won a game since the season opener against Southeast Whitfield, but the team is coming off its most impressive outing in more than a month.
Last Friday, Woodland entered halftime scoreless in a home game against Villa Rica, which will be East Paulding’s final opponent next week. Villa Rica took the lead early in the third quarter, but Woodland responded with an excellent drive capped by a touchdown and 2-point conversion by Asa James to take the lead.
The visiting Wildcats would eventually regain the lead and hold on for a 14-8 win, but it was still an encouraging performance from the home side.
“I thought, defensively, we played well enough to win the game,” Woodland head coach Tony Plott said. “Offensively, we had some moments where we looked good. We had two really long drives. One of them we scored on; one of them we turned the ball over on downs. We’ve just got to do the little things right.”
Woodland’s offense should have chances to sustain drives and put points on the board. East Paulding has allowed at least 24 points in all but one game this season. Even still, Plott knows it won’t be easy to move the ball against the unit.
“We’ve got to be able to handle their front three,” Plott said. “Their three defensive linemen they put down there are big. They are deep in athletes, and they play hard. The linebacking corps is physical, and the secondary is good.
“We’ve just got to be better.”
On the other side of the ball, Woodland will be tasked with keeping a resurgent East Paulding offense at bay. The Raiders had scored 55 total points during their inauspicious start, which included matchups with the four region playoff teams. Over the past two weeks, the team has produced 73 combined points.
“They’ve been able to run the football,” Plott said of East Paulding’s newfound offensive success. “They have a couple of different running backs — No. 6 [Rayne Chuma] and No. 4 [Justin Williams] — who have the ability to hurt you. They’re fast. The quarterback, No. 2 [Skyler Melton] is very good. He’s a dangerous runner, as well, and he can throw the ball.
“They started off with a really difficult schedule. What you’ve seen is that they’ve gotten better throughout the course of the season. We know they’re going to be well coached. We know they’re going to be dangerous. We can’t help them out any. We need to be able to hold the football. We need to try to get some three-and-outs and get some turnovers. We haven’t had a turnover forced in what seems like forever.”
East Paulding graduated one of the state’s top running backs in Tyrell Robinson. However, his departure has diversified the Raiders offense, making more challenging in some ways to slow down.
“It’s going to be a little harder,” Plott said. “You can’t focus on one aspect of their game offensively. We are going to have to be honest defensively. We have to be able to watch the running backs and the quarterback also, and then be able to defend the pass, because they are balanced. They have weapons throughout the offense that you can’t ignore.”
In a meeting of teams who haven’t had quite the year either would have hoped to see in August, there are still some lessons to be learned. The Wildcats need to look no further than the opposition sideline to see how a team with seemingly nothing to play for has managed to change the narrative of its season.
It’s easy for Woodland to focus on the future with only two games remaining, but there’s still those two games that present opportunities for experience, growth and wins.
“We’re playing to win the game, but we’re looking at the big picture also,” Plott said. “We want to go there to compete and win. Our kids work hard. They deserve to have success. We want to go there, take care of business and come home with a win.”