The John Milledge Academy football team knows what it feels like to walk off the Mercer University football field very much on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
The Trojans lost the 2018 GISA AAA state championship game 48-0 to Frederica Academy, but bounced back to get the title the next year. John Milledge vanquished the Valwood Valiants 62-19 to win that 2019 championship, so now it’s the Hahira school looking for redemption. That’s something JMA head coach JT Wall and his staff are reminding their team of this week as Valwood (2-2) is set to come to Milledgeville Friday.
“We’ve been in Valwood’s shoes before,” Wall said Tuesday. “We were there this time last year. We know what that feels like and how it can drive a team to have a great year.”
The 2020 season so far has been mixed results for head coach Justin Henderson’s Valiants. They stand at 2-2 having beaten Georgia Christian and Baconton Charter with the defeats coming from Frederica Academy and GHSA opponent Savannah Christian. Wall pointed out though that Valwood hasn’t played in a couple weeks — one a scheduled open date and the other due to COVID — so they’ve had plenty of prep time for the rare regular season matchup with JMA.
“They’ve probably been able to fix some things and add some wrinkles,” said Wall. “They always have their guys coached up. We know they’re going to be fresh and hungry.”
The two schools have met only six times in the past despite both being longstanding GISA members. Five of those six matchups occurred in the state playoffs, and the all-time series is tied at 3-3.
This year’s edition of Valwood football features offensive standouts at the quarterback and H-back/tight end positions. But the Valiants did lose a dynamic wide receiver from last year in Aalah Brown, who decided to transfer to Valdosta High School. Seniors Pate Hogan at quarterback and Harrison Hamsley at tight end now make up a bulk of the Valwood offensive threat.
“Hamsley’s a big weapon and target for them,” said Wall. “They’ve even put him in the backfield some for their wishbone jumbo set. A lot of things run through him and the quarterback.”
Hamsley has just 13 receptions through four games, but is averaging better than 20 yards per catch and has three receiving touchdowns. The job of covering him will change depending on the formation and where he lines up, according to Wall.
Hogan was the Valwood starting QB last season before suffering an injury. He returned to help the team through the postseason, and entered in the second half of the state championship game.
“He’s got a big arm, and he can run too,” Wall said of Hogan. “They do a lot of quarterback power, quarterback counter and quarterback running out of the gun like we’ve seen the last few weeks. He’s a dynamic player.”
Hogan has thrown the football almost 70 times so far this season, but is completing less than 50 percent of his throws. So far he has seven touchdowns through the air against four interceptions. As Wall mentioned, the quarterback can be dangerous with his feet. He leads Valwood in rushing right now with 151 yards, but that total isn’t all that daunting four games into a season.
Beyond the quarterback and tight end, Wall shared that his team will have to prepare for the Valiants’ no-huddle offense as well as the possibility of multiple trick plays.
Except for a bad quarter here and there, the 2020 Trojans have once again been on an absolute tear. The defense has allowed no points in the last two games. The offense is averaging 42.5 points per night thanks to a slew of weapons. Senior KJ Jackson leads the rushing attack with 425 yards and four touchdowns, but four other runners have surpassed 100 yards on the year. Marcus Prestwood and Taylor Dixon have been the top two receiving threats. Two offensive linemen, Devin Kitchens and JV Brookins, already have 30 pancake blocks on the year.
The JMA defense has been a total team effort, but some players manage to stand out on the stat sheet. Linebacker Je’Mazin Roberts has a great nose for the football as shown by his team-leading 32 total tackles. Defensive lineman Carson Dyer has always had a penchant for getting into opposing backfields, and and his eight tackles for loss this year stand as evidence.
Many and more names have contributed to the Trojans’ early success, but Wall still feels the team isn’t playing up to its potential with all the penalties taken in recent weeks. That’s something he hopes to see cleaned up when Valwood comes to town.
“We’re going to have to play disciplined football and win the turnover battle. I feel like we say this every week, but we’re not doing it — we’ve got to minimize penalties and play smart.”
Kickoff between the Trojans and Valiants is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday at JMA.