Spoon Risper knew the Westside football program would go through some hard knocks during the first half of the 2016 season.
The Seminoles’ head coach put together a quality non-region schedule that included a 6-4 team from last season in Howard, a Southwest team that had a strong defense returning, a perennial power in Northside and a team that regularly mixes it up against some of Atlanta’s top private schools, B.E.S.T. Academy.
Add to that a GHSA Region 4-3A schedule that leads off with the top two teams from last year’s Region 2-3A, and the stage was set for six bruising games, right from the start.
At 2-3 and still trying to develop some offensive consistency after having to break in a whole new set of receivers, Westside has been roughed up a bit. But Risper believes the process is getting Westside ready for the games it needs to win to make the playoffs — and then make a bit of a run once there.
“We haven’t hit the panic button,” Risper said. “Our kids still believe and I believe, and that’s all that matters.”
Thursday’s 7 p.m. game at the Ed DeFore Sports Complex against Jackson, last year’s Region 2-3A champion, marks the final game of that run of six games against quality opponents. But it’s also a measuring stick game between evenly matched opponents: Last year’s meeting was close, with Jackson winning 31-29 at Red Devil Hill, and Westside won by 17 two years ago.
Making things more complex for Westside this week is a short week of practice following last Friday’s 31-13 loss at Peach County that opened region play.
“You pretty much have to double up on your practice assignments,” Risper said. “You have to add more things in on Monday and Tuesday. It’s more for them to take in and soak up, especially mentally for a game like this.”
So far, Westside’s offense has yet to completely break out, aside from a 42-6 win over B.E.S.T. Academy. Quarterback Savion Knowlton is passing for 96 yards per game and had a season high of 136 yards against B.E.S.T. Academy, while the Seminoles’ top running back, Lakelvin Clark, is rushing for 41 yards per contest.
Jackson, which lost defensive tackle Michail Carter to Georgia and receiver/safety Ny’J Smith to Presbyterian, is 3-2 (1-0 region) but is coming off back-to-back shutout victories over Monticello and Rutland.
Senior running back Antavius Grier paces Jackson’s offense, rushing for 494 yards and seven touchdowns. The Red Devils have three players with significant passing attempts, topped by senior Shaderious Crowder (16-35-0, 361 yards, four touchdowns).
“They’re probably better this year on defense than last year,” Risper said. “Their offensive line, their linebackers are very physical. They’re big, they’re strong, and they’re fast.”
Risper believes Westside can fight through its schedule much as it did during a rough October stretch last year in which it lost three of four games in that month. The Seminoles wound up qualifying for the playoffs as the No. 4 team from their region but made a surprising postseason run, beating Laney and Sonoraville on the road before falling to Cedar Grove in the Class 3A quarterfinals.
The schedule is favorable to Westside following the Jackson game. The biggest contest remaining after this week is an Oct. 28 showdown at Henderson Stadium against unbeaten Central, and only one other remaining opponent, Pike County, has a winning record.
“We’re kind of in the same predicament as last year,” Risper said. “We know that if we win out, we’ll be 7-3 and get into the playoffs. Last year, we were 7-3 and we were two games away (from the Georgia Dome). We were one of the last teams in Middle Georgia that was left.”
Henderson Stadium will be the site for the other two games in Region 4-3A this week. Rutland (1-4, 0-1 region) hosts Kendrick (0-5, 0-1) at 7 p.m. on Thursday, while Central (5-0, 1-0) hosts Pike County (3-1, 0-0) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. Peach County (4-1, 1-0) is off this week.