By RICK HEAD, Sports Editor
Perhaps many looked at the Region 2-AAAAA Ware County-New Hampstead finale as a Gators’ tuneup to the state playoffs.
It could well be, but the “new kids on the block” could spoil the party. New Hampstead (3-5-1 overall, 2-1 region), which just started playing a varsity schedule in 2014, can either win the region title or force a three-way tie with an upset of sixth-ranked Ware County (5-3, 3-0), whose roots on the gridiron date back to 1948 and old Wacona High.
The Phoenix are playing their fourth game in 10 days, an unheard of task after Hurricane Matthew wrecked havoc with schedules of Savannah area schools. They played Statesboro and Wayne County last Tuesday and Friday. New Hampstead faced South Effingham this past Monday night.
Tonight’s game, the first between the Phoenix and Ware County, is scheduled for a 7 p.m., start at Pooler Stadium, which was erected last year.
The Gators have dominated its three region foes (Statesboro, South Effingham, Wayne County) allowing just nine points (touchdown, field goal) by the defensive unit. There was a safety scored against Ware County’s jayvee offense.
“We’ve got to contain their (Phoenix) their quarterback,” said Ware County defensive coordinator Michael Youngblood of Calvin Turner (6-foot, 170 lbs.). “He’s quick, agile and can hurt you with his feet. He reminds me of a young Michael Vick.”
Turner, who directs a spread attack, leads the region in rushing (1,448 yards) and touchdowns (14), and in passing (1,243 yards) and touchdowns (nine). Youngblood said New Hampstead does like to throw and will mix in a few running plays, but Turner will take off and run with the ball.
“It’s (Phoenix offense) not a spread read-type of scheme,” said Youngblood. “The quarterback can make something out of nothing. When he scrambles he makes things happen. We’ve got to corral him and make the tackle.”
Ware County has worked on the scramble drill this week in an effort to keep everything in front of them.
“The key is our front seven doing their job and having trust among our defenders,” said Youngblood. “The defensive line has to trust that our secondary is not going to get beat deep and give up the big play. Our secondary has to trust the defensive line is going to do their job. The secondary can’t come up and lose sight of their (Phoenix) wide receivers and let those guys get open deep for big plays.
“That’s been the key to our success in region play. We’ve made teams have to drive the ball and that’s been huge. Only Wayne County has been able to drive the ball and that came on their (Yellow Jackets) opening possession.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Gators will be operating against an 8-man front. Offensive coordinator Sonny Spurlock said its a 3-5 alignment with New Hampstead walking up an outside backer in tight end formations for a 4-4 look.
“They (coaches) have changed a couple of things the last few weeks out of necessity,” said Spurlock of the Phoenix defensive scheme. “They are taking more chances by moving people around and blitzing. They are very athletic and they play hard … they just find ways to get stops when they need them.”
New Hampstead has allowed its three region foes to score 31 points per game. Wayne County lit the Phoenix up for 48 points in the back end of a two-game schedule last week. South Effingham scored 29 points in Monday’s game. The two combined for just 11 points against Ware County.
“We’re going to have some opportunities,” Spurlock said, “and we have to take advantage of them. They (Phoenix) get out of position sometimes, but they are so resilient. They will give up a big play and then come right back and make a big play.
“This is the first time we’ve matched up size-wise with a region opponent, though. It’s going to be little vs. little.”
The Phoenix have four of the region’s top 11 tacklers. The linebacking duo of Greg Cole (Sr., 5-10, 217) and Nicklaus Pikramenos (Jr., 5-6, 180) are the third- and fourth-leading tacklers with 61 and 53 tackles respectively. Senior defensive end/linebacker Kaden Wade (5-9, 185) and junior defensive back Jalen De la fuente (5-10, 147) are 10th and 11th combining for 81 tackles.
New Hampstead also has a trio of players tied for the region lead in interceptions, and as a group have recorded 12 picks overall. Pikramenos, De la fuente and Dontre Wallace (So.,5-7, 185) are tied in interceptions with three each. Adam Brown (Sr., 5-10, 150) is fifth with two. Turner has recorded one.
“The key for us is no turnovers,” said Spurlock. “They (Phoenix) do a good job of forcing turnovers a combination of ways. Their corners play man and press coverage forcing quarterbacks to throw into a tight window. The safety, who I think is their best athlete, sits back and plays centerfield.
”Anytime you can hang on to the ball you will be successful. We’ve got to negate negative plays and bad plays. We also have to convert in short-yardage situations.”
A Ware win guarantees two home playoff games. A loss could mean just one.
“We just have to go over there and take care of business,” said Youngblood. “If we do that everything else will fall into place.”