Canes look to begin playoff run with home win

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History would indicate Cartersville is the underdog in Friday night's Class 4A state playoff opener against Stephens County. Everything else would indicate that's laughable.

The Canes have little history with Friday night's visitors. However, of the four previous meetings, only once has Cartersville defeated Stephens.

All four matchups came in the early 2000s during the Frank Barden era. The two most recent also came in the playoffs, as the Canes were eliminated each time — a 21-15 loss in 2005 and 15-6 loss in 2003. The latter defeat came after Cartersville had won a regular-season contest that year by a 16-3 margin.

Needless to say, times have changed.

This time around, Cartersville is unbeaten and the No. 2 team in Class 4A based on composite rankings. Stephens finished off a 5-5 regular season and 1-3 Region 8-AAAA campaign with a 56-10 drumming at the hands of St. Pius X.

Computer projections have the Canes as five-touchdown favorites in the first round. Any way you slice it, a Stephens win Friday night at Weinman Stadium would be a massive upset.

Even still, Cartersville Joey King was laser focused on his upcoming opponent when discussing the team's playoff approach this week. He isn't looking past Stephens County, and he hopes his players follow suit.

"It's all about survive and advance, now," he said Monday. "That's our mentality, and that's what I've talked to the guys about. I said, 'You can't pay a lot of attention to that one versus four stuff.' I mean, the four seed from our region [Cedartown], we beat them by one point. All that stuff is irrelevant now. It's survive and advance. ... We want to move on to the next round."

In order to do that, Cartersville will be tasked with slowing down Stephens' Wing-T offensive attack. Bartow County football fans are plenty familiar with the offense, as Woodland has effectively run it the past few years.

As a whole, it's not an extremely common offense. Cartersville, though, does face it once a year against Central-Carroll. King hopes the experience of facing the Lions and getting to face the scout-team offense again will give the Canes an easier time.

"They're Wing-T offensively, and they do a pretty good job with that," King said. "They're physical at the point of attack. They've got a couple of different wrinkles off of it that can kind of give you problems, so you have to do a good job of playing assignment football.

"Defensively, they're an odd-front, but they'll show some even looks. They've got some good players in certain spots. We've got to make sure we're focused on doing our job, playing good assignment football and good fundamental football."

Cartersville enters the playoffs undefeated and convincingly swept aside previously unbeaten Troup County in what amounted to a Region 5-AAAA championship game last week. Given all the success the 2018 Canes have had, it's easy to forget this is an inexperienced group in regards to the postseason.

The team entered the season with plenty of question marks after graduating a vast majority of the starting lineup on both sides of the ball. But Cartersville has sidestepped every obstacle, cleared every hurdle and overcome every ounce of adversity to reach this point.

It has the Canes as confident and tight-knit as possible entering the most important time of the year.

"Our confidence is good and our chemistry is good," King said. "That's what I talked to the guys about out there at the end [of practice Monday]. Any time you play a team sport, there will always be some type of divisiveness that tries to creep in. ... We've got to do a good job of protecting this chemistry and the team that we have. I think the guys have accepted that, and it's been really cool to see the guys grow in that respect as the season has progressed."

While the team has clearly grown and matured throughout the season, the playoffs are an entirely new beast to try to tame. King can only hope his players are ready for the challenge.

"Preaching the same things that we've preached all along," King said of approaching the postseason. "... The things that make teams great from here on out are fundamentals and caring about each other. That's something that goes a long way. If we can continue to protect our chemistry, continue to play fundamental football, we'll make a run at this thing."