Strong and Cedar Ridge each made their debuts in eight-man football this fall, and while their regular season records may have been vastly different, they start the playoffs on equal footing.
Tonight, the Bulldogs and Timberwolves square in the first round of the 2A 8-Man playoffs at Jerry Burson Field.
Game time is set for 7 p.m.
Strong (8-0), the No. 1 seed from the South, finished a perfect regular season last week with a 38-18 win over Cutter Morning Star. Friday’s game is the first in the postseason for the Bulldogs since 2015 and their first home playoff game since 2010 when Strong beat Murfreesboro 54-40.
Cedar Ridge (2-6), the No. 4 seed from the North, clinched their first playoff berth in five years with a 26-22 win over Decatur two weeks ago.
Maison Hudgeons, who is in his third year at Cedar Ridge and first as the head coach, leads a team loaded with underclassmen that is excited to be a part of the postseason.
“It was a big deal,” Hudgeons said. “Everybody is excited. The kids are beyond excited. They’re ecstatic that they were able to do something that teams before them haven’t been able to do.”
As far as contending with the Bulldogs, Hudgeons said his team will have its hands full.
“They look very athletic. They’ve got some pretty good looking kids. They’re able to run,” Hudgeons said. “They look like a good, solid team.”
For Strong coach Sirl Wright, the last month has seen opponents adjust to the Bulldogs, and being the No. 1 seed from the South, he is expecting to get Cedar Ridge’s best shot.
“What I tell the guys is that the big issue is when you make the playoffs, no matter if you’re on the top part or the bottom part, you’re in the dance,” Wright said. “Once you’re in the dance, you have the opportunity to be the king and everybody wants to be the king. As the top-rated team, you’re always going to get everybody’s best because everybody wants that recognition of being the one that takes down the one that has the title.
“Everybody is always shooting for you. You’re going to get their ‘A’ game. It’s just like the last four games of the season. Those teams did things more differently than they had done all season against us because they were trying to adjust to us.
“That’s why I tell them we have to hone in and do those basic things as far as blocking and tackling and be aware of all of our rules as far as what concepts we have in so we can play good, sound football.”
Wright said the coaching staff has had to readjust to how opposing teams are playing them.
“You’ve got to keep it fresh,” Wright said. “If you come in with the same game plan week to week, other teams are going to adapt and adjust and try to expose whatever you may do that pick up on as far as film study, and that’s where film study comes in at a strong point as far as kids and also coaches.”
As far as the Timberwolves are concerned, Wright said his defense will be tested by their running game.
“They’re a run-dominant team, and what we have to do is stop the run,” Wright said. “They run a little bit different as far as style. They run more so out of the I. They run a little pistol. They’ve got big guys on the inside, so they try to utilize their size and run the ball and pound it at you.”
Although the Timberwolves won only two games this season, Hudgeons said the team reached their goal of making the playoffs and with many underclassmen cutting their teeth, their future looks to be a bright one.
“I think it was a good move for us,” Hudgeons said of going to eight-man. “COVID hit us pretty hard and we lost some kids due to not coming to school last year because of the virtual stuff. It was the best option for us due to our numbers. It’s been good to us so far. The program has had their ups and downs. I knew it was going to be a rebuilding process and our goal as a team was just to make the playoffs. In the last five years, they won a total of two games, and we won two this year matching that. I feel like we’re heading in the right direction.”
The win over Decatur could become a defining win for the program in time.
“Decatur is kind of in the same boat as lot of teams that are in eight-man. They’re trying to rebuild and get their numbers up,” Hudgeons said. “I preached all week, ‘Guys, you have to win this to get into the playoffs. That was the goal you set when I started in the summer.’ We had one of the best weeks of practices we’ve had since I’ve been here, and the defense came out and did great.
“We got ahead 12-0, and then the past culture kicked in and they kind of took it off the gas pedal and let Decatur get back in it, but they battled to make sure they got the win. I’m very proud of that. They played hard.
“We changed up our defensive strategy because we lost to Augusta due to pass coverage and responsibilities. We put in some new coverages and they executed it great.
“I think they had a total of 20 yards passing. They really stepped up because they knew what they wanted to accomplish this season was about to be lost. I’m very proud of that.”
The Timberwolves are led by freshman quarterback Aidan Jones.
“He’s still stepping into that role,” Hudgeons said. “He throws one of the best balls I’ve ever seen. He can drop back, he can sling it and he can run. He’s a little shifty. He’s not that fast, but he’s hard to tackle. He can stop on a dime and change direction and he fights for extra yards. He’s had a good season. I’m really excited to see what he does for the next three years.”
Sophomore running back Tucker Hutchinson has played well down the stretch.
“It took him a little bit into the season to get in the groove, but it’s really starting to click,” Hudgeons said. “He’s pretty quick and he finally understood that we run out of the power-I and we’re running downhill. He hits the hole hard.”
Junior lineman Dylan Brashears and sophomore linebacker Daniel Dunn help guide the defense.
“They don’t have a superstar or go-to guy, but they gang tackle,” Wright said. “They had a few good games against some playoff teams where they took them to the last minute of the game.”
While the Timberwolves were idle last week, the Bulldogs finished off an unblemished regular season with a 38-18 win at Cutter Morning Star.
“The big thing was just getting through that game,” Wright said. “Every team that’s undefeated or has the advantage of clinching the conference title early, you have that choice of pulling your guys back and letting the backups get a lot more playing time or do you want to keep that perfect record and play your guys that got you there a little bit more to win.
“That’s the dilemma we had. We didn’t want to lose any momentum, but we wanted to be balanced and try to make it a good, sound win and also get some of those guys that don’t get much playing time some game experience because that’s very valuable going into next season.”
Junior quarterback LaQuincy Shelton had a sterling performance for the Bulldogs, going 8-of-11 passing for 251 yards with four touchdowns in the win.
“He did a good job of bouncing back,” Wright said. “He was over-shooting guys that had gotten behind the defense a whole lot, and I guess that timing factor was just a little bit off. We went back to the drawing board and made sure we took the easy points and not just go for the most difficult throws.
“He bounced back, took the coaching and came out with a better performance. We’re trying to find out our weaknesses and mend those weaknesses and try to improve on the thinking portion of the game versus the physical portion of the game. He’s doing a great job of doing that.”
If the Timberwolves are to have success against the Bulldogs, it will come down to being able to run the ball while trying to corral Strong’s speed.
“We’re just going to have to be fundamentally sound,” Hudgeons said. “Strong likes to hit the edges because of their speed, so we’re going to have to be sound in our edge setting and make them go back inside to our big boys and backers.
“Coverage-wise, they have got to know their responsibility. We can’t let them get behind us because we’ll never catch them. When we go man, they’re going to have to stuff them at the line.
“Offensively, we have to run our power game. If we can’t run our power dive or trap, we don’t have it on the edges just because of their speed. I tell my kids all the time, ‘Three yards and a cloud of dust.’ I really think that’s going to be our advantage is we’re going to have to three yards, three yards, three yards just down the field. If we can play that old-school, hard-nosed, smash-mouth football, I think it will be to our advantage just because of our size.”
Wright also believes that winning the battle in the trenches will be crucial.
“The big thing defensively is stop the run,” Wright said. “They don’t pass it very well, but if we can stop the run, I think we’ll have a great opportunity to move on to the next round. Offensively, just basically execute.
“Don’t sit on the point that just because we made it in to the dance with the top rank and think that’s going to do anything, prove that you’re the top-ranked team. I just hope we go in one game at a time and just stay aggressive and execute.”