Battle for North Bartow

Tigers, Colonels meet in early season clash

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Bartow County rivals Adairsville and Cass will enter their upcoming matchup, which will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Colonels’ Doug Cochran Stadium, in two quite different positions.

The Tigers head into Friday with a victory already under their belts, and an important one at that.

Adairsville came into its season opener last week off a poor performance in a 37-10 scrimmage loss to Woodland. With that backdrop, it was vital for the Tigers to put on a better showing in Week 1 against Chattooga — more important even than necessarily winning the game.

Well, head coach Eric Bishop and his crew did emerge victorious. It took a dramatic touchdown drive, a gutsy 2-point conversion to take a one-point lead and a game-sealing interception to escape with the win.

It taught Bishop much more about his players than the scrimmage did.

“We learned one thing: We’re going to continue to play hard,” Bishop said of last Friday’s game. “That was the single biggest factor in us being in a position to win that game late the way it took place. If our kids don’t compete, play hard and really keep grinding at it, we’re not going to be in that position against a really good football team."

Bishop said his coaching staff is still ironing out the depth chart, and getting consistency from his players has been a talking point in the early season.

“We talked about [how] sustaining a high level of focus in practice will lead to the same thing in games,” Bishop said. “Hopefully, we won’t have these peaks and valleys. That’s really what we’re trying to work through now is to consistently play at a high level, play after play after play and stop having these peaks and valleys in our performance and execution.”

Meanwhile, the Colonels enter Friday’s showdown — the only local game this week with Cartersville and Woodland off — as a fairly unknown commodity.

The only game Cass has played so far is the scrimmage against Pepperell back on Aug. 10. The Colonels had the opening week off just as they did when the teams met in Week 2 last year, meaning they have more film on the Tigers than the Tigers do on them.

It would also seem to be a blessing for a team coming off a winless campaign to have even more time to prepare for the season and, in particular, its first opponent.

“You put on pads on Aug. 1, so when we scrimmaged, we had literally only had five and a half practices,” Cass head coach Bobby Hughes said. “Having that next week off, while other teams are getting ready to play, gave us a chance to continue to work on the fundamental stuff that we need to continue to get better at.”

But ...

“It’s a little scary in the fact that, generally speaking, you make your most improvement between Game 1 and Game 2,” Hughes said. “[The Tigers] have that advantage on us that they already have Game 1 under their belts and something to build on in the way they came back and found a way to win in crunch time.”

Of course, the two Bartow rivals have an extensive history against one another, dating back to 1956. Cass holds the edge in the all-time series edge, winning 30 of the 51 matchups. The Colonels are 10-2-1 against Adairsville since 1993, but Adairsville broke a five-game losing streak to Cass in 2017 with a 29-15 win at Doug Cochran Stadium.

Despite the Tigers getting the better of the most recent matchup, Bishop said the Colonels will be a different team Friday night.

“Offensively, they are doing a few things differently,” Bishop said. “They still have some spread concepts, but they have added a lot of basic Wing-T plays, formations and schemes. That’s kind of new and different for them on offense. …

“Rett Moore is much improved at quarterback. He certainly throws the ball better than he did last year. He made some really good throws in the first half, particularly late in the first half, of the scrimmage against Pepperell.

“They’ve got a couple of guys that really catch your eye. No. 5 [Malik Grimes] seems to be a really speedy back. No. 40 [J.P. Perry] at tight end is really impressive, especially with his blocking ability and what they try to do in the run game. No. 13 [Jacquez Fountain] at wide receiver is pretty impressive. He seems to be, at least in the little bit of game film we've seen from them, their go-to receiver. No. 9 [Thomas Gilliam] is their back.  … He’s a hard, downhill runner.”

Even though Adairsville lost several key pieces from last year’s team that reached the first round of the Class 3A state playoffs, the Tigers bring back some big-time players.

Hughes spoke glowingly of Mason Boswell. The do-everything senior put the team on his back late in the Chattooga game. But Hughes knows he’s far from the only dangerous player Adairsville possesses on offense.

“They’ve got two or three guys who are really special athletes,” Hughes said. “Of course, Mason is in a league all by himself. You have to spend a lot of time [preparing] for all the things that he can do. No. 15 [Derrick Simmons] is very similar to Mason, just younger, not as seasoned but, from an athletic standpoint, very gifted.

“Coach Bishop and them are always, always well-prepared. They’re not a perennial playoff team by accident. They do a great job of having their guys ready to play. They’re technically sound with schemes and what they do, so you have to get ready knowing they’re not going to make mistakes.”

Defensively, Boswell will be a handful for the Colonels, as well. He is the leader of a solid secondary that could give Cass headaches, as could stud defensive lineman Chandler Shankles up front.

“Very, very, very good defensive player,” Hughes said of Shankles. “He wreaks a lot of havoc. You’ve got to pay attention, and you’ve got to get him cut off. He runs to the ball well. Of course, Mason is very good on defense, as well.

“They do what they do defensively, and they do it well. They play the 3-4 scheme. They’re sound in what they do, especially in the back. From an athletic standpoint, they’re very gifted back there.”

On the other side, Bishop is worried mostly about what Cass has along its defensive front. Despite playing just three down linemen, the Colonels do a good job plugging things up with Beau Smith and Khobe Johnson among the ones impressing Bishop.

However, it’s Rodney Richards, a converted defensive end, who stands out the most in the middle of the linebacking corps.

“We got to scout them live on the Friday they played Pepperell, and the first guy who gets your attention is No. 2, the MIKE linebacker,” Bishop said referring to Richards. “We walked up, they were on defense and that’s the first guy you notice. When you turn on the film, same thing. He kind of anchors the defense.”

Even having lost last season’s meeting, Hughes said he and his coaches don’t bring up the past with Adairsville. Instead, they remind the players what happened throughout last season's 0-10 campaign.

“We don’t bring up last year’s game,” Hughes said. "We bring up last year as a whole for us, as far as us not finishing things, not finding a way to get it done."

The hope for Hughes is that his team is putting that behind them after finding a way to pull off a 6-3 win over Pepperell. A victory Friday would keep that momentum going, and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

“When you have a team like us, who is trying to learn how to get it done, the more you can build off of positive stuff, the more that stuff snowballs,” Hughes said. “The more we give ourselves a chance to be competitive and find a way to get it done, the more we’ll expect to win. That’s all part of that process of how to learn how to win.”

Of course, a triumph over their intracounty brethren would be an emotional one. The challenge for both coaches will be to manage the emotions of the players.

Adairsville will have gotten first-game jitters out of the way, but the Tigers need look no further than the scrimmage game against Woodland for a glimpse at what can happen if a bad start occurs against a county rival.

For Cass, the game is not only the season opener, but also the home opener and, of course, against their north Bartow neighbors. But Hughes thinks it makes for an outstanding environment.

“Any time they get to line up against kids they’ve grown up against, that adds that extra dynamic that they get excited for,” Hughes said. “Sometimes the parents have grown up and known the other kids’ parents, so It makes it a little bit more fun in the community.”