Canes looking for repeat performance against Mustangs

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If Friday’s game between Cartersville and McNair follows the same script as last week’s home opener, the Canes certainly won’t complain, at least not head coach Conor Foster.

In Foster’s official home debut after taking over the program from Joey King earlier this year, Cartersville (2-0) came out on fire in all three phases against Luella. Devonte Ross opened the game with what Foster believes was the first kickoff return touchdown in roughly 10 years for the program; the offense found the end zone on every possession the first string led; and the defense shut out the visitors.

“Obviously, I’d love for us to perform that well every week,” Foster said. “With that being said, there’s always things for us to improve on. From our coaching staff on down to our seniors and leaders, they’ve done a great job of continuing to self-reflect and comb over the details of what we do and find ways for us to get better.”

That could be seen this week on the offensive side of the ball. The Canes struggled with some more advanced concepts during their scrimmage against Dalton and season opener at Allatoona.

Last week, Cartersville had a vintage look and a vintage performance to match. But instead of retaining an exclusive diet of bread and butter, the Canes will be expected to slowly start implementing some progressively more complex recipes.

That process appears set to begin Friday.

“I thought we went back to the basics and really got back to the heart of what we want to be offensively,” Foster said of last week’s 47-0 win. “You’ll continue to see wrinkles throughout the season. There’s going to be things this week that we’re going to work on. Maybe, they’re not a strength right now but we need to get better at them, because we believe they’ll help us down the road.

“You have to find the right balance between doing what you do really well and continuing to push and finding new wrinkles, new things and new schemes to add to improve. Make yourself do the things that maybe you don’t do as well, so they’ll pay off and become your strengths as the season wears on.”

To be frank, this week’s matchup would be an ideal time to try anything the offense (or defense for that matter) wants to improve upon. McNair enters Friday’s meeting with an 0-2 record, having lost to Towers (33-21) on Aug. 23 and Redan (44-0) last week.

MaxPreps has the Atlanta-based Mustangs ranked as the second-worst team in Class 2A. Meanwhile, the Canes just became the unanimous top-ranked team in Class 4A. The programs overall state rankings: McNair, No. 451; Cartersville, No. 9.

Even still, Foster made the obligatory statements to prop up his team’s opponent, which lost last year’s contest by a 70-0 final score.

“They’re very athletic,” Foster said of the Mustangs. “Their new coaching staff has changed a few things from what we saw last year. I think they’re still trying to develop an identity of who they want to be on both sides of the ball and really as a whole. I think there’ll be some wrinkles we haven’t seen on film yet that we’ll have to adjust to.

“But they’re a very athletic team. They run the ball well; they’re big up front; their running back, No. 12 [Javon Yearby], is very talented. He’ll get a lot of carries. We’ve got to be prepared.”

When Foster says “We,” he genuinely means the entire collective of Canes. The expectation would be that the starters, particularly on offense, likely won’t see a snap in the second half. Last week, backup quarterback Stratton Tripp and Co. entered the game halfway through the second quarter.

More of the same should be in store this week.

“It’s great for those young guys and encourages them to work hard in practice for them to be able to go out there and enjoy the fruits of their labor,” Foster said. “Any time we can get some young guys in the game and get them some experience, it helps them buy in.”

There will likely be a few second string performers on the field from the opening whistle, as Cartersville deals with a rash of injuries not seen in quite some time. 

The good news for the Canes is that those players seem to be trending in the right direction and should be able to return by the start of Region 5-AAAA play on Sept. 27, if not in some capacity before then.

“We’re going to remain cautious,” Foster said. “We’ll start to see some snaps from some of these guys who haven’t played in a while to get their feet back up underneath them. … We’re trying to be big picture minded. Who we are is not who we want to be when it’s all said and done. The big picture is to be healthy and ready to go when region play starts.”

While Cartersville had two AJC preseason all-state picks in street clothes last week due to the injuries to Marko Dudley and Jonah Gambill, the Canes did see their leading tackler from 2018 get his first snaps of the year. Junior Harrison Allen, who finished with 115 tackles last season, played sparingly but should see an uptick in snaps moving forward.

“I thought he handled the entire situation with a lot of maturity,” Foster said of Allen, who hadn’t played against Dalton or Allatoona. “… It’s good to see him back out there and see the smile on his face, knowing all his work to get back healthy is paying off. He’s been patient and worked hard to get himself back ready to play.

“I expect him to have a big week. I think his legs are fully back up underneath him, and he’ll be full speed.”

Despite playing a completely overmatched Luella squad last week, Canes fans managed to pack the home side stands at Weinman Stadium. For a Cartersville High graduate like Foster, there’s no better sight. 

And as much as he hopes to see a repeat performance from his players this week, Foster is also looking for the crowd to provide a suitable encore.

“The home crowd was really into it,” he said. “They were there early. The student section was rocking. The band was playing. It’s natural for you to be more excited at a home game, and I thought our kids really fed off the energy of the crowd. I hope that we’ll pack it out again this Friday.”