A lot is on the line Friday night when the East Tartans (6-1, 3-0) hit the road to face off with the Oak Hill Oaks (5-2, 3-0).
Both teams will compete for sole possession of first place in the SOC I and a potential conference crown. The game could also decide who makes the playoffs at the end of the regular season, or at least give an advantage to one of the two schools moving forward in that regard.
The coaches for both teams know what is at stake in this game, which has big implications for what 2017 could bring to their squads.
“This is the reason why you play and the reason why you coach, is to work yourself into a position where you can have a game that has a lot of expectations and buildup to it,” Oak Hill head coach Nathan Dugan said. “That’s what makes it exciting, a little bit more exciting than just a normal Friday night.”
East head coach James Gifford agreed that a lot is on the line in this contest.
“All offseason, this is what you prepare for,” Gifford said. “This is the game that you always talk about, the SOC championship game, this is what you’re doing it for.”
This conference rivalry has always been hotly contested. Gifford estimates that he won’t have to deliver any pregame speeches of epic proportion heading in to this meeting.
“There won’t have to be a lot of pep talks and all that stuff before the game,” Gifford said. “I think the guys will be pretty driven and will go out and do their best. They’re pretty excited about it.”
Last year, the Tartans knocked off the Oaks 27-26 at home. The win was East’s first win over Oak Hill since 2008.
Although the Tartans have a 7-9 record against Oak Hill since 2000, East is just 2-6 when playing the Oaks on the road in that span.
Dugan dismissed the idea of an outright home field advantage, but hopes that the crowd at Oak Hill can rev his players up even more.
“Maybe they can carry us a little bit more on the field emotionally speaking as we go on,” Dugan said. “It’s going to be a tough, physical game and there’s going to be times when our guys need a little pickup.”
This game looks like it could possibly be the most physical challenge each of these teams have faced so far this season.
“They’re probably the biggest offensive line we’ve gone against,” Dugan said about the Tartans. “They boast a couple really good players that stand out, of course it probably goes without saying that Blaine Scott is one of the best linemen we’ve faced in quite a while.”
Scott has caught the eyes of Dugan, but he said the buck doesn’t stop there when it comes to talent up front for East.
“You start with Blaine Scott, but it doesn’t end there,” Dugan said. “They’ve got four other guys that play their positions really well and they’re well coached [and] well disciplined.”
While the Tartans are tough up front, the Oaks have some brute strength on the line as well.
“I don’t think either team really has the upper edge as far as the most physical line, because I think both teams are pretty solid there,” Gifford said about Oak Hill. “They’re a very physical team, they always are … That’s Oak Hill, that’s who they are.”
This matchup no doubt seems like a battle in the trenches, but features several big playmakers at the skill positions for both schools.
Most notably for East, they will be playing without one of their best athletes in junior Kyle Flannery. Flannery is suspended following an ejection in last week’s 60-20 win over Eastern.
The loss is costly for the Tartans, as Flannery leads the team in rushing yards (366) and rushing touchdowns (9). Flannery is also an all-purpose threat, as he’s scored on five touchdown catches and also brought a punt return in for a score.
Junior Mackie Kingery will replace Flannery, and Gifford says he’s ready to go.
“The thing with Mackie is, he never takes a play off,” Gifford said. “He gives you everything he’s got.”
Kingery won’t come in to the game cold, he’s recorded an interception on defense and scored a rushing touchdown on offense. On 11 carries so far this year, Kingery is averaging eight yards per run.
The biggest concern for Gifford is the endurance of Kingery, though he isn’t too worried. He compared Kingery to the “Energizer bunny” saying he’s always “running, running, running.”
Although Flannery is out for the game, East is confident they can have others step up in his place.
“That’s the good thing about our team,” Gifford told the Daily Times. “We’ve got a lot of depth. For being a small team, we’ve got a lot of depth. As soon as two or three guys go out, we can pluck two or three guys in and not hurt a lot I don’t think.”
Looking at Oak Hill, they have several talented players to carry the workload on offense. Senior running back Zach Fisher and junior Bayley Clutters have been big thus far for the Oaks. Oak Hill also leans on senior quarterback Caleb Johnson, and although the Oaks don’t throw the ball a whole lot, Johnson is more than capable of distributing the ball through the air.
Oak Hill hopes they can continue the success they’ve had on offense so far this season. The Oaks are averaging 27 points per game, including scoring over 40 in three of their last four games.
Scoring that many points won’t be the focus for Oak Hill in this game, though. Instead they want to try and control the clock and keep the Tartans from getting the football.
“Our offense has to be able to sustain drives, get first downs, eat up some clock and not allow their offense to get on the field as much because they have a lot of explosiveness,” Dugan said.
The blueprint is simple on the other sideline.
“Just do exactly what we’ve been doing,” Gifford said. “When you’re a team that’s averaging over 40 points a game, at this point in the season we’ve faced every defensive front you can imagine. Teams that blitz, teams that don’t blitz. They know what to do.”
Certainly, senior quarterback Brady Douthat knows what to do. Douthat is completing 60 percent of his passes this season, and has thrown for 18 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
Douthat will look to step up big in the absence of Flannery, but the game plan won’t be any different for Gifford’s group.
“Like I say every week, we’ll just play Tartan football and see what happens,” Gifford said.
Kickoff between the East Tartans and the Oak Hill Oaks is set for 7 p.m. on Friday night.
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 or on Twitter @BSpicerPDT