High School Sports

Backs to the wall, Houston County welcomes traditional power Valdosta

Houston County running back Jaeven West (1), who flipped into the end zone for a touchdown last week against Northside, will have to have another big game Friday against visiting Valdosta.
Houston County running back Jaeven West (1), who flipped into the end zone for a touchdown last week against Northside, will have to have another big game Friday against visiting Valdosta. jvorhees@macon.com

The win over Northside on Friday will go down as one of Houston County’s most memorable victories with the underdog Bears holding on for a 45-35 win over the then-No. 3 Eagles in front of a huge crowd at Freedom Field.

It was Houston County’s second straight win over Northside after losing the first 17 meetings in the series, meaning the seniors go out with a 2-2 record.

Jake Fromm and receivers Amari Colbert and Eli Watson had huge offensive nights, and the game was a back-and-forth affair that wasn’t sealed until the final minutes. Now, the Bears will try to make sure that the ninth game of the season wasn’t the highlight of the season and that 2016 doesn’t end after 10 games.

A month removed from being ranked No. 1 in the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s GHSA Class 6A poll, the Bears again have their backs to the wall. They needed a win last week for this week to matter, and yes indeed, the visit at 7:30 p.m. on Friday by second-ranked Valdosta does matter.

Win, and Houston County makes the playoffs no matter what else happens in the region. Lose, and the packing process begins. There’s no change in routine for the 7-2 Bears, even with the state’s winningest program coming to town with its first region title since 2011 and the 42nd in program history.

“We do the same things we normally do,” Houston County head coach Von Lassiter said. “We try to get better every day.”

On the other hand ...

“It’s not a normal game; it’s not that,” he said. “It’s like last week; it’s not a normal game when it gets to this time of year, when your backs are against the wall.”

The win over Northside was huge for the program and school, and it is the kind of win that can linger too long.

“That’s something we’ve got to get over,” Houston County offensive tackle Trey Hill said. “We’ve got to win this game this week. We’ve got to watch film, work hard. Practice has been great.”

The Wildcats are 8-1 overall and 3-0 in region play. The lone loss was 45-24 to Colquitt County, currently ranked No. 6 in Class 7A, in Valdosta’s final non-region game.

The Wildcats survived being vastly outgained by Northside to win 14-6, took early control and thumped Lee County 27-7 and then held off Coffee 15-10.

Valdosta is fairly comparable to Northside in several areas, but the Wildcats use two quarterbacks: Josh Belton and Hunter Holt. They are similar in all passing categories and have teamed for about 1,600 passing yards. The defense is led by defensive back Antwon Kincade and linebackers James Bushware and Zakoby McClain.

“They’re well-rounded in all-areas,” Lassiter said of the Wildcats, coached by former Peach County head coach Alan Rodemaker. “Very good on defense, efficient on offense and superb on special teams. Just pinning guys deep. Obviously well-coached in that area.”

Fromm is 430 yards behind career state passing yards record-holder Deshaun Watson, but the senior hurt his throwing shoulder last week and is unlikely to be his normal self. And the rough region schedule has the Bears banged up in various areas. But receivers Watson and Colbert along with running back Jaeven West are fairly healthy.

There’s no need for Lassiter to mention too often what’s on the line Friday night.

“I hope that the motivation for us to stay together another week, to play together with the people you spent so much time working with, I hope that’s what motivates them,” he said. “Not who we’re playing. I hope that the relationships they have with one another motivates them to play hard each week.

“If they want to stay together, they’ll play hard.”