A tall task lies ahead of the Baldwin High School football team Friday night.
The Braves are getting set to host an undefeated Cartersville High School squad that has been one of the top football programs around the state, regardless of classification, the past four years. The Hurricanes are an astounding 53-1 since the start of the 2015 season, winning the Class 4A state title that year and in 2016 as well. No one can say that the Braves do not belong at this stage in the playoffs though since they’ve rattled off seven wins in a row including last week’s second round shutout of Columbus.
“At this time of the year there are no bad football teams out there,” BHS head coach Jesse Hicks said. “You’re going to get some of the best teams in the state that are in 4A, and we’re one of only eight that are playing. The fact that we started out 0-5 and are now one of the top eight teams in the state means a lot and says a lot about the character of our kids and coaches.”
Those who follow college or high school football closely should be familiar with Cartersville’s program since it produced one of the top overall prospects in the country last year. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence played his high school ball for the ‘Canes before continuing his career at Clemson University in South Carolina. It didn’t take him long at all to earn the starting job even though he’s just a true freshman at one of the most consistent football programs in America. Baldwin doesn’t have to worry about game planning for the long-haired phenom, but that doesn’t mean the offense isn’t still dangerous.
“They’re very balanced,” Hicks pointed out. “When the Lawrence kid was there they were going to throw the football 70 times. Right now, they’re a lot more balanced. It’s nothing we’re not used to. Those teams we played early in the year are just as formidable as Cartersville, but I think we’re a much better football team than we were at that time especially on the back end.”
Hicks was speaking about his defensive backfield that has been playing lights out as of late, and it seems like every time you turn around, either Donte Justice or Trey Trawick is hauling in an interception. They and their secondary mates will need to keep that up this week against a quarterback who has thrown for more than 2,400 yards this season. In addition to that, Baldwin’s defensive front will need to find ways to create pressure to keep the Cartersville spread offense out of rhythm.
Defensively, the Hurricanes line up in a three-man front, which is something BHS has seen plenty of and performed very well against in 2018.
Hicks is stressing to his players this week the fact that they earned their position this deep into the playoffs, and not to pay attention to the name on the front of the jersey they’ll be lining up against.
“They’re a good football team, but they’re also a group of kids,” Hicks said of Cartersville. “It’s our will that’s more important than the skill right now. I’ve always felt that way about the playoffs. Everybody right now is well-coached and can play football, so it’s more about your will versus their will.”
With Baldwin on Thanksgiving break this week the practice schedule has seen a bit of a shakeup. The Braves have met each morning before taking to the practice field and finishing up around noon. It’s a far cry from practicing after a long day at school, but Hicks says his players have taken the change in stride.
“I can’t even put into words how great the atmosphere at practice is,” he said. “The kids are very focused and very loose. They know exactly what we’re looking for; they’re playing at a high level, and they’re running fast, but they’re also having a good time.”
This will be the third straight week Baldwin gets to host its playoff matchup, having won the GHSA coin toss to determine home teams among same-ranked opponents. Although playing in the home stadium is great in the playoffs, there has been no real home-field advantage due to low attendance numbers on the home side of the bleachers in recent weeks.
Hicks did not mince his words when asked about the lack of a strong show of support from the community.
“It’s disappointing, not to me per se, but because it affects the kids,” said Hicks. “It’s hurtful to see them affected by it. The city does not understand how it makes these kids feel when they show up. It takes the football to another level. I’m begging the people to please come out and support these kids.”
The winner of the Baldwin-Cartersville matchup will play the winner between Mary Persons and Marist in the state semifinals next week. Friday’s kickoff between the Braves and Hurricanes is set for 7:30 p.m. inside Braves Stadium.