The Woodland High football team is coming off possibly its best performance of the season, staying within one score of Paulding County for much of a 35-21 loss.
However, the Wildcats will only face stiffer competition from here on out, as all three of their final opponents are preseason-ranked teams in Class 5A.
That brutal stretch begins Friday night with a home game against East Paulding, which is currently 1-5, but is coming off a win over Cass and is still in the mix for a playoff spot in Region 7-AAAAA.
“They’re a lot better team [than their record],” Woodland head coach Tony Plott said of East Paulding. “They’re probably one of the better one-win teams in the state. They’ve played some tough teams, had some close losses, but they’re a good football team.”
East Paulding has already played two of the top three teams in the region and is 1-3 in region play, but will likely by favored in three of its last four. Three of the Raiders’ losses came against opponents who are ranked in the top 10 of their respective classifications, while the other two came against region playoff contenders.
East Paulding has made the state playoffs in eight of the past 10 years, including two state quarterfinal appearances in that span. Woodland is 4-6 all-time against the Paulding County school.
East Paulding has one highly-rated recruit in three-star athlete Jalen Browder at receiver, but the offense runs through the quarterback and running backs. Dylan Prater is an athletic quarterback, and he hands off to speedy sophomore Tyrell Robinson.
“Offensively, they have a couple of weapons. Their quarterback is a good athlete. He throws the ball well enough to hurt you, and he can definitely hurt you with his legs,” Plott said of East Paulding. “They do a good job offensively trying to create running lanes for him.”
Plott said, while the Raiders do not run a complicated offense, they execute it well.
“They do a lot of spread principles where they use tight ends. So they’ll do two-tight stuff, and then they’ll run inside zone, some sweep stuff out of the gun,” Plott said. “They’re trying their best to create some running lanes. They’re not real sophisticated. The do formation you a lot. They do what they do and they do it very well.”
Defensively, Woodland will be facing another athletic team in what seems to be a never-ending parade of athletes at Wildcat stadium so far in the 2016 season.
“Defensively, They’re a 4-4 team. They’re a lot like us on defense,” Plott said. “Their kids play hard. They have a couple of good defensive linemen. [Zyon Ross], he’s a good looking kid. He can catch things from behind, run stuff down. They’re a good football team.”
Of course, Woodland will be more focused on its continued improvement than anything East Paulding throws at it, and the Wildcats have made strides that were evident in last week’s loss to Paulding County.
“The kids are starting to get healthy, starting to believe. They’re starting to see that there’s some truth to what we’re telling them that they are getting better each week,” Plott said. “Kaemon Echols came back last week and did a good job stepping back in there as the sam linebacker. That allowed us to move Emmanuel [Jones] to will and he came off the edge a couple of times (14 tackles, sack, forced fumble).”
Offensively, Woodland had its highest scoring output of the season, scoring more points, 21, than in its previous four games combined.
“We tried to mix up things we do offensively,” Plott said of the improvement. “We looked back at some of the stuff we’ve done in the past. That helped get the running game going a little better. And then we did some play-action passes that helped us off of it.”
Despite the progress, a backloaded strength of schedule will make it difficult for the Wildcats to pick up that elusive first win.
“We have three good teams that we have to play. We start with East Paulding, who, before the season, everyone thought they’d be fighting for one of those four playoff spots,” Plott said. “Then we have Kell and Rome [two top-five teams in 5A], so it’s not going to be easy. Our kids are going to be challenged each week and we’ll see how much our kids can improve from now until the last game.”