St. Pius has several talented returners from that team this year.
As a result, Cartersville will have, by far, its toughest test of the season tonight as the Purple Hurricanes welcome St. Pius to Weinman Stadium at 7:30 p.m.
“We’ll see if we can play with a good St. Pius team. The bottom line is you have a team that played Buford in the finals last year,” Cartersville head coach Frank Barden said. “They’re a good football team, so it’s two good football teams in a game that is in the playoff arena.”
St. Pius went 7-3 during the regular season before defeating Hart County, who had been ranked as a top 10 team in the state, by a score of 31-21. Hart County was the No. 2 seed in the region and St. Pius was the third seed. All four teams from St. Pius’ region, Region 6, defeated teams from Region 8.
“I don’t get into the seeding because there’s four teams in the Atlanta area that beat four teams in AAA,” Barden said. “It’s really not a seeding thing. It’s a good football team vs. a good football team.”
St. Pius lost two games in the region to Woodward Academy and Blessed Trinity. The Golden Lions, who are out of Atlanta, also lost to Lovett High. The combined record of those three teams is 27-6 and all three are still alive in the playoffs.
The Golden Lions are led by their strong running attack featuring fullback Dalton Wilson and quarterback Joey Connors. The pair combined to account for 1,517 yards in the regular season.
“They’re a triple-option team. They’re going to run the veer. The quarterback and the fullback are the main two cogs that make the offense go,” Barden said. “They do what they do, and they do it very well. There’s no question we have to stop those two players.
“If we could put 14 out there we would put 14. We might need them.”
Connors only averaged four pass attempts per game during the regular season. Therefore, Cartersville’s defense will need to gear up to stop the run.
The Canes’ defense has performed well all season. Against West Hall, a interception return, a kickoff return and a 99-yard passing play left the scoreboard not emblematic of Cartersville’s defensive effort.
“I think it’s at a point where you have to be in the playoffs. I don’t think there’s a question that, in the playoffs, you have to play good defense,” Barden said when asked how confident he was in his defense. “Defensively, we played well. I think it takes a total team effort in the playoffs. The kicking game and defense are very important.”
St. Pius has an excellent defense as well, led by Nick Ruffin, who committed to Auburn in May. Ruffin is a senior safety and is ranked as the 15th best football prospect from Georgia in the class of 2014 by 247sports.com.
Ruffin had 40 solo tackles and 19 assisted tackles during the regular season to go along with three interceptions and a forced fumble.
Linebacker Daniel Crochet has also been highly sought after by Division I colleges, and racked up 32 solo and 19 assisted tackles in nine regular season games.
“They’re a 4-3, Cover 2 and they are a very well-coached unit,” Barden said. “They have some very good players.”
The Cover 2 defense, along with the talent in the secondary, may make it difficult for Cartersville to throw the ball deep. The Canes had trouble throwing the ball down the field in the first round against West Hall, but ran the ball effectively on their way to 28 points.
“We had some shots deep [against West Hall] that we missed on where there were some chances to get scores, but there are times when we are going to line up and run the football because there’s a better chance to get a first down,” Barden said. “A lot of people, like in the Ringgold game, are giving us defenses set to stop the pass and make you run, so the run game is going to be there. Tiamon [Pennymon] and Kalin [Heath] are running well and our offensive line is playing well, so it’s nice to have that.”
The winner of the game will move on to play the winner of the Callaway-Pierce County game.