The Buccaneers, who captured the Region 7AAA crown a season ago and reached the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state playoffs, were moving up two levels to AAAAA and the team was losing their starting offensive line and all-state running back Miles Jones to graduation.
However, despite the personnel losses and the move to a higher classification, Allatoona finds itself on the brink of the Region 5AAAAA championship.
To claim it, running backs T.J. Herron and Josh Bettistea, who have combined to rush for 2,051 yards and 29 touchdowns, will have to lead the 9-0 Buccaneers to
9-0 East Paulding, where they will have to find a way to beat the Raiders at the Bone Yard.
“I felt like we could compete in the new classification,” Varner said. “I didn’t think much of jumping into a new region, but our kids took the jump personally because there were people who thought we wouldn’t do well. It is what it is, but I felt like we had the pieces to compete.
“I didn’t expect us to be 9-0. Our goal was to get in the playoffs, and I felt like we could accomplish that. We’re blessed and lucky to be undefeated. Getting home-field advantage for the playoffs was a goal and we’ve realized that. Now, we have a shot at East Paulding. They’re the big gun in this region, and it should be a good game.”
Including this season, East Paulding has missed the playoffs only once in the past seven years, but throughout that time, the Raiders have yet to post a losing record.
Under first-year coach and former Walton defensive coordinator Chuck Goddard, East Paulding hasn’t missed a beat, and is on the verge of its first region championship since 2007.
“After I got to know the kids, I felt like we had a chance to be a good team this year,” he said. “Given what’s been built here recently in terms of success and the fan base, the expectation was to come in and continue to set the bar high. Fortunately we’ve been able to do that.
“Today’s game is going to be physical. I think it will come down to who executes best and doesn’t turn the ball over.”
Allatoona and East Paulding are mirror-images of each other offensively with a focus on running the football. The Buccaneers had question marks along the offensive line prior to the start of the season, but the unit has held up well over the course of nine games. Other parts of the team have also progressed and turned the Buccaneers into winners.
“We have six first-year starters on the offensive line who have played well,” Varner said. “Having our starting quarterback from last season back has also been a big help.
“It’s interesting, even with the changes on offense, we’ve had more yards rushing and passing this year than we did last year. We knew our defense was going to be solid, and they’ve played well all year. But, our offensive line has been strong and (quarterback) Jeremy (Uzee) has thrown the ball well which has made our offense a lot more balanced.”
Allatoona’s offensive and defensive lines will be tested by an East Paulding front that Varner describes as “big and strong.” The Raiders run out of a multiple-I back set and use play action to matriculate the ball downfield.
“They have a big and strong tailback that reminds me of Miles, and they pound you to death with the run-play action,” Varner said.
“They’re stout defensively, have had a lot of success and have had only one close game in the region against South Paulding.
“For us to win, we’ll have to match their physicality up front. If we can’t, then it will be a problem.”