By NICHOLAS SULLIVAN
Preparing for the state championship game is something the football programs from Cartersville and Warner Robins are more familiar with than most.
Since 2015, the Canes and Demons have reached the state finals four times apiece, including this year.
Cartersville capped off unbeaten seasons with back-to-back championships from 2015-16 but fell to Blessed Trinity in its most recent appearance in 2018. Meanwhile, Warner Robins is at this stage for the fourth consecutive season, having come up short the previous three times.
This year, the two programs will meet in the Class 5A state title game at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.
Every year seems to bring new challenges with the schedule changes brought on by the state finals. In 2017, Warner Robins had its game postponed and ultimately moved from Atlanta due to a snow storm. The following season, both the Canes and Demons were impacted by the championship games being pushed back a few days due to Atlanta United hosting the MLS Cup final.
This time around, the GHSA adjusted the title game schedule before the season began. After pushing back the opening week by a fortnight, the governing body managed to squeeze the finals into the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
It’s a unique situation to be playing games this late in the calendar, but Cartersville head coach Conor Foster believes his team has successfully traversed the difficult setup.
“I’ve been very pleased with the focus of our young men,” the second-year head coach said. “… The week-and-a-half of preparation has gone over this Christmas break. I just appreciate the families and their sacrifice, being willing to be flexible and change their plans to allow these young men to have this great experience.”
Cartersville and Warner Robins will each enter the matchup with 12-1 records, with the former ranked fourth in 5A and the latter checking in at No. 2. Both will likewise be searching for the fifth state title in the history of their programs to join an exclusive club that included just 17 schools entering this season.
In addition to their two recent 4A championship teams, the Canes, who are in their first year in 5A, also won titles in 1991 and 1999. The Demons were crowned champions in 1976, 1981, 1988 and 2004. However, Warner Robins is looking to avoid becoming the Buffalo Bills of 5A, with a fourth straight defeat in the title game.
“It’s a great program and not just for the last four years,” Foster said of the Demons, who have fallen to Buford, Bainbridge and Rome, respectively, the past three seasons. “It’s years and years of success. Different coaches. Different players. It just speaks volumes to their tradition, their community and their culture. It’s a privilege to go up against another great program like Warner Robins. They’re just really well coached and very talented in all three phases of the game.
“We have our work cut out for us. They’re the best team we’ve played. That’s how it should be at this point, and we’re excited about the challenge.”
Warner Robins finished first in Region 1-AAAAA, while Cartersville — despite going undefeated in Region 7-AAAAA — earned a No. 2 seed. It might have worked out for the best, because Blessed Trinity, which landed the region’s top seed, lost at home to the Demons in the quarterfinals.
Already this postseason, Cartersville has beaten the second and third seeds from Warner Robin’s region. The Canes knocked off Ware County 34-31 on the road in the quarterfinals and held off Coffee by a 24-17 final score at home in the semifinals.
Even still, the only common opponent between the two finalists is Ware County. Each team defeated the Gators by three points, with the Demons earning a 22-19 win in late October. The Coffee-Warner Robins game was called off due to COVID issues, as was the Cartersville-Blessed Trinity contest.
In some ways, Cartersville’s previous encounters with Ware County and Coffee will have offered a preview of sorts for this matchup.
On the offensive side, Ware County quarterback Thomas Castellanos showcased a dual-threat ability similar to Warner Robins signal-caller Jalen Addie. Based on Foster’s scouting report, Castellanos is likely shiftier with the ball in his hands, but Addie is equally as effective rushing it and probably throws it better.
“He’s a really long, athletic young man and spins it really well, especially on the deep ball,” Foster said of Addie, who has thrown for 1,944 yards and rushed for 947 to go with 32 total touchdowns. “He throws as good of a deep ball as any quarterback I’ve seen at the high school level. He throws it nice and high, and very accurate.
“They do such a good job of using tight ends and multiple backs in the running game to get you to crowd the box, so they can take shots down the field. They have great playmakers on the edge.”
Defensively, Warner Robins will look similar to Coffee. Both teams are able to control the line of scrimmage. The Demons’ duo of Vic Burley (21 tackles for loss, 11 sacks) and Demarcious Robinson (84 total tackles, 16 TFLs) could wreak havoc on the Canes offensive line.
“In Coffee County, we saw a big, physical defensive front, and we’ll see the same thing this week,” Foster said. “They’re able to control the run game without adding a bunch of defenders to the box, which allows them to keep extra people in the passing game.
“We’ve got to find a way to be a little bit more effective in the run game and use some of the short passing game to kind of open up that box and keep them off balance.”
Speaking on Monday, Foster noted a couple of starters were already expected to miss out on the championship game. In a year defined by COVID, there’s always the possibility that more players (and coaches, for that matter) are unable to participate.
As kickoff approaches, Foster, who is looking to become the fourth consecutive Cartersville head coach to win a state title, hopes his players remain focused on the task at hand.
“Biggest thing is to try to keep our focus on the game itself,” Foster said. “Certainly to enjoy the experience as much as we can, but to focus in on all the details and things that are necessary to go 1-0 and not get caught up in the hoopla and everything else.”
While a vast majority of the Demons’ key players will have experienced at least one previous title game, there are several Canes set to feature who experienced the state finals in 2018. All of those individuals will look to finish this season on a different note.
“I think playing in the state championship game a couple of years ago is certainly a memory that sticks out for a lot of them, coming out on the losing end,” Foster said of his experienced players. “I think it kind of drives home the point that this is a great experience, but the goal is to win the game — not just to get there.”
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