Over the course of the 2017 season, the East Tartans have been playing with something to prove.
In each of its eight victories in 2017, East has scored 38 or more points, including 46 or more in seven of those eight wins. The Tartans have had four players rush for at least 318 yards this season to go along with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. And Braiden Haney, along with Ethan Gifford, have combined to collect an astonishing 162 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, and four fumble recoveries between them.
Yes, those are, indeed, all great stats. And all of them have been huge in East’s ability to claim not only sole possession of second place in the SOC I standings, but a playoff spot as the No. 7 overall seed in the Division VII, Region 27 playoff bracket.
However, even with all of that success, the Tartans are looking for more, because unlike the 2015 and 2016 campaigns, James Gifford and company want to leave their mark with a playoff win, if not more.
East can take the first step in pushing its program up a step on the proverbial ladder on Friday evening, when the Tartans, at 8-2 overall, make the trip to Waterford to visit the 9-1 Wildcats on Friday evening in a playoff affair that will be held on the campus of Waterford High School on Friday evening as the first round of the playoffs begin in earnest.
To push a program up a notch, a team must be playing its best football at the right time. And if practice is any indication, that’s exactly what Gifford’s ballclub has done in practice.
“Our line has played well all year,” Gifford said. “Our guys are fully aware of Waterford’s front line, and the talent that they have at the linebacker spots. We’ve had an absolutely great week of practice, the best week that we’ve had the entire year. The kids have been focused and they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and our scout team has been giving us a great look.”
East will certainly need to be prepared from all sides of the coin considering what Waterford brings to the table from a defensive standpoint. The Wildcats, who run a 5-2 monster defensive formation, have 5-8, 150-pound nose guard Teddy Smith and junior linebacker/two-way standout Braden Bellville at their disposal. The pair have spearheaded a defense that has allowed just 9.2 points per contest in 2017 — 48 of which was given up over the first three weeks of the year.
However, Haney, who is arguably East’s strongest defensive hand with 82 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, and 12 sacks, did the Tartans’ offensive attack a huge favor by lining up in the nose guard position on the scout team unit in order to give East’s interior lineman — Brayden Gifford, Justin Kritzwiser, and Grant Gifford — a test that would be akin to matching up with Smith. And according to Gifford, the trio have passed that test resoundingly.
“Waterford’s got a great nose tackle who is quick in Teddy Smith,” Gifford said. “Braiden has volunteered to be Teddy for a week at defensive tackle. Our center, Brayden Gifford, and guards, Justin Kritzwiser and Grant Gifford, have been able to go against him, and we feel that because they have stopped or slowed Braiden in practice effectively, that it’ll definitely pay off for us, because nobody will be quicker than Braiden. We’ve prepared properly and we know what we’re getting into with Waterford, and we’re excited.”
That point, in and of itself, is huge because it could free up the middle for East’s playmakers to take full advantage. Ethan Gifford, along with Kyle Flannery and Ethan Carver, have all proven to be fantastic from the backfield positions while sharing the bulk of the load, as Gifford has run for 318 yards and six touchdowns on just 40 carries while Flannery leads the team in rushing with 473 yards and 12 touchdowns on 58 carries.
The pair, who have combined for 457 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2017, are followed by Carver, who has rushed for 330 yards and six touchdowns on just 31 carries in 2017. Carver ran for nearly 100 yards against Symmes Valley in Week 8 — while playing through 17 stitches.
“I just kept thinking about how much I wanted to win our first playoff game in school history, and I knew that the team needed me to step up and show out,” Carver said following the Symmes Valley affair.
East’s ability to control the line of scrimmage up front — the Tartans have 144 pancake blocks among their starting offensive linemen — has been of great benefit to the passing game, as well. Brady Douthat already holds the school record for passing touchdowns in a single season with 25 and has just five interceptions by comparison en route to completing 74 of his 133 passes for 1,319 yards on the season. His favorite target, JD Hatcher, has 23 receptions for 559 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017.
To further aid the Tartans, four of those five position players are seniors who have been through the highs and lows that have come with East’s 24-8 record over the past three seasons — experience that can only help East in its quest for its first-ever playoff victory.
“The senior class has been just a wonderful class,” Gifford said. “This is my 18th year coaching, and I don’t think that I’ve seen a better senior class. Every class has its special thing about them. Last year’s senior class had good kids who were very, very athletic. This year’s senior class isn’t as athletic, but the chemistry that they bring to the table is outstanding.”
From a defensive standpoint, the Tartans will have to utilize the stingy play of Ethan Carver, Ethan Gifford, Haney, and Chandler Carver to stop Waterford’s ball control offense, which is also led by Bellville. The junior running back is nearing the 2,000-yard mark for the season.
“Braden is a good, physical back,” Gifford said. “I don’t know if you can do anything special to prepare for a back like him, other than working on your tackling. We’re worked on that this week, and of course, we’ve got to tackle him low. He’s a stronger guy, and if we stand up and try to arm tackle him, he’ll break those tackles. He’s a special back, and he’s going to get his yards here and there. If we can achieve our goals with him and slow him down, we think our chances are really good.”
But while Waterford is primarily a ball control offense, Gifford has noticed that the Wildcats aren’t afraid to wing it if need be. That’s where Flannery (three interceptions), Douthat (36 tackles, two interceptions), and Mackie Kingery (53 tackles, interception) come in.
“Offensively, they like to stay in the power-I, with a tight end and a receiver on both sides,” Gifford said. “However, they will go to a quad, two-receiver look on both sides out of the shotgun formation at times. They are a multiple offense, but no matter what team you play or what formation guys are in, a counter’s a counter, a trap’s a trap, an iso’s an iso, and so on and so forth.”
And ultimately, it comes down to preparation from a physical and a mental standpoint, no matter how much film is watched. That point is something that East, who gave up 55 points apiece in losses to Caldwell (2015) and Danville (2016) during its playoff run, looks to be more well-versed in this time around.
“This is our third year in a row making the playoffs, and every time you go to the playoffs, whether you win or lose, you get more experienced,” Gifford said. “From my own standpoint, I feel like our staff and I have done a lot better job preparing our players this week, because we know what we’re getting into. This is just another week to our players because they’ve been there before, so the excitement of getting on a charter bus and stopping somewhere, getting something to eat on the way up, and getting in the newspaper doesn’t excite them anymore because of the experience of having been there.”
Could it all add up to a win on Friday evening? That’s something that isn’t known until the time the clock hits triple zeros. But one thing’s for sure: Gifford and East are going to have a ball fighting for the right to advance.
“The thing that excites our players is having the opportunity to go up there to knock that No. 2 seed off to stay in the playoffs,” Gifford said. “The worst case scenario is that we go up there and we get beat. Still, even with that, how many teams in Division VII get that chance to play in the playoffs? There are a lot of teams out there that would love to have the opportunity that we have, so win or lose, we’re going to go up there and play with our best effort and our best attitude. We’re excited to be there.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT