A win for 10th-ranked Walton (6-2, 4-1) would lock up the second seed in Region 5AAAAAA, which would guarantee the Raiders a home game in the first round of the state playoffs.
“Our kids know what is at stake,” Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo. “We are treating this game as a very important one. A win would mean a playoff game at home, and we really want our first playoff game to be at Raider Valley.”
Meanwhile, Etowah (4-4, 3-2) may need a win just to keep its playoff hopes alive.
“Oh, this is a big game for us,” coach Dave Svehla said. “We told our kids that the destiny of our season is in our hands. We control it. We determine what happens to us or not.”
After narrowly losing last week’s game to Woodstock — and the all-important tiebreaker with the Wolverines for the region’s fourth and final playoff spot — Etowah is now on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned.
But with a win over Walton, Etowah would jump back into the playoff picture by virtue of a tiebreaker over the Raiders.
With their final regular-season game against undefeated Lassiter looming next week, this Friday’s contest is one the Eagles likely need to win if they want to extend their playoff run to seven years in a row.
To do that, they will have to find a way to stop Tyren Jones, the top running back in Class AAAAAA.
“I don’t know that anyone will be able to stop him,” Svehla said of the Alabama-bound player, who has rushed for 1,675 yards and 16 touchdowns this year. “He’s just an awfully good football player. What we’d like to do is to keep him from getting loose. If we can limit his number of explosive plays, that will help.”
Limiting Jones’ explosiveness is exactly what Hidalgo hopes Etowah cannot manage to do.
“We are going to give (Jones) the ball and, hopefully, he’ll make some magic happen,” Hidalgo said.
Despite the danger Jones presents, Svehla isn’t just concerned with Walton’s top running back.
“They are not so one-dimensional that you can focus on just stopping (Jones). You have to be aware of their other players,” Svehla said. “If they were one-dimensional, I don’t think they would be 6-2.”
For Hidalgo, the success of the Raiders’ offense lies not just with Jones, but with the team’s underclassmen.
“It has been a tough year for us injury-wise,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve had quite a few starters out long-term. Our young kids are going to have to step up. Someone may have to make a big play for us to win.”
Even with their injury woes on the offensive side of the ball, Hidalgo can take solace in the fact that he will be fielding a defense that held Milton, which averages 33 points a game, to a season-low seven points last week.
In their nationally televised win over Milton, the Raiders defense forced two interceptions, recovered a fumble and blocked a punt.
“The win against Milton was huge,” Hidalgo said. “We won it because we managed the game well. We’ll have to do the same thing against Etowah.”
For Etowah to win, it will have to avoid the numerous mistakes it made against Woodstock last week, Svehla said.
“Some teams have athletes that can just go out and make big plays constantly for you. We don’t,” Svehla said. “We left a lot of points on the field last week. For us, it comes down how we execute. Our kids are smart enough to know that they better be prepared to play Friday, because they won’t like the result if they are not.”