Todd Winter

Todd Winter brought a physical style of football to Holy Innocents' and it has paid off with a region title.

Credit: Sam Crenshaw

Football games between Wesleyan and Holy Innocents’ are a big deal. Last Friday night the No. 6-ranked Golden Bears beat the Wolves 21-0 and Holy Innocents’ Coach Todd Winter will quickly tell you the reasons this win was so very special.

"It was a big victory in a lot of ways," recalls Winter. “We clinched the region title for the second time in three years, which was a very positive thing for our program. Wesleyan and Holy Innocents’ has always been a big game. A few years before we came in here, back in 2013, they weren’t real competitive football games with Wesleyan. The last three years have been great football games. Fortunately for us two of the last three years, we have been on the right side. We beat them in 2019 (31-0). Last year we were tied 13-13 with 2:41 on the clock and they scored to win to win (20-13) and this year we won (21-0)."

Winter arrived at Holy Innocents’ in 2017 after a stint at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming. He had to work to change not just the outcomes on the field, but the program's outlook toward Wesleyan. Today there is a different level of expectation.

"I think we have started to climb that hill against them, and we’re pretty happy about that," says Winter. "When we got here in ’17, that first game was an ugly game. They beat us 42-28, the next year was 24-16. We didn’t play well in either one of those games. I think we had the mindset that, 'hey it’s Wesleyan.' "I think we have gotten past that now. We are at the point where we expect to beat Wesleyan. They are a good football team and a well-coached football team. This year we beat them at the JV level and at the middle school level. We are the two big kids on the block and the big kids have to square off at some point."

Holy Innocents'

Head coach Todd Winter loves to get in the trenches and work with the linemen.

Credit: Sam Crenshaw

Winter is a throwback in many ways and is proud of it. If you are wondering whatever happened to your father's high school football, I think that I have found it. The Golden Bears run a version of the triple-option that racked up 242 yards rushing against Wesleyan and the coach just loves it.

"We run the flex bone," boasts Winter. "We are like the old Georgia Tech, like Navy, The Citadel, Army. We threw four passes in the game. We pride ourselves in being a physical football team. We track knockdowns. We had two players that had 16 knockdowns each. In this game. I felt like we wore them down in the late third and fourth quarters. Last year we weren’t able to wear them down like that. They had bigger dudes and we couldn’t finish against them."

While Wesleyan is always large on their radar, Winter was concerned about his Golden Bears facing Mount Vernon, their opponent the week before.

"Mount Vernon came in at 6-2,” recalls Winter. "You can literally hit their school with a stone from here. That’s a rivalry game and we jumped out on them 35-0. We had seven interceptions, housed four of them, and it was homecoming. I was worried that they might not be ready to play on last Friday."

Not to worry, the Golden Bears matched their highest point total of the season in the 56-7 rout of Mount Vernon. There clearly were no ill-effects against Wesleyan, but with their season mark at 8-1 and the region title still wrapped up, there is one game that haunts Holy Innocents’. It's the Week 3 loss to defending state champion Prince Avenue Christian.

"In the Prince Avenue game, we have six turnovers," says Winter. "We put the ball on the ground four times and we gave up four picks. We basically handed them 28 points. That’s beating yourself and we typically don’t do that here."

The 49-0 outcome against Prince Avenue stands out when one surveys the Golden Bears season record for 2021. It's a dreaded and painful memory that Winter won't allow his team to forget.

"We talk about the Prince Avenue game every week," says Winter. "I remind them every day at practice that they do not forget Week 3. We talked as coaches and we told the players after that game that 50 percent was on them and 50 percent was on us. I think going into the game we were allowing some poor technique and we really addressed that the next week. I believe that game has us more focused. When we started practice this week I said great job Friday night, you’re region champions, but you know what … don’t forget Week 3 and Prince Avenue."

 I stopped by practice and found the Holy Innocents’ team to be a very focused squad. There is a level of maturity with a team that is relatively young.

"We have 69 on the roster," says Winter. "Nine are seniors. We start two seniors up front on offense and two seniors on defense. Everybody else is young. Our secondary is pretty green, but they have improved each week. We thought we had a chance to be a solid football team, but there is always a question mark when you are playing young kids who don’t have a lot of combat experience."

Jacobi Murray

Sophomore Jacobi Murray is a short-yardage back and defensive end for the Bears.

Credit: Sam Crenshaw

Experience doesn't seem to be an issue for Jacobi Murray, who makes his presence felt on both side of the ball. Just a sophomore, Murray scored all three touchdowns in the victory over Wesleyan, but is also a disruptive force at defensive end.

"He’s a special player and even better person," remarks Winter. "He’s 6-2, 278 ... I know they list him in the paper at 240 and I always say 'Nah, you got the wrong guy.' First as a defensive lineman he’s explosive. He plays with great leverage, great hands and is extremely hard to block. Jacobi just happens to be able to run the ball pretty well for us, at times. We only got him back the week before against Mount Vernon. He had been playing defense only because he broke his hand in the first game. He’s our short yardage guy. He’s already been offered by Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech was in to see him this week and he goes up to Notre Dame this weekend."

But as I told you earlier, Winter is old school. He loves the game in the trenches and spends most of his time during practice working on the offensive line.

Holy Innocents'

The offensive line produced 242 yards rushing against Wesleyan.

Credit: Sam Crenshaw

"Those guys up front are nicknamed the pit bulls," says Winter. "I coach those guys and they are the heart and soul of this football team. We go where they take us and each day they are getting a little bit better. Normally our O-line is undersized and scrappy and pit bulls are scrappy. This season the guys are different. Our smallest guy is 6-2, 245, so they are not really typical pit bulls. We just like playing old-school football. Teams don’t like playing us because we like taking the fight to the other team."

Next up for The Golden Bears is the regular-season finale against Hebron Christian. Then the second season begins. Winter is confident his team has been properly tested.

"We have a solid region," says Winter. "Wesleyan is a great football team in our region. Mount Vernon as well and both are balanced running and passing. We got Hebron this week who is a solid running team. I think that prepares us very well."

This week Football Fridays in Georgia will feature Buford at Dacula. It all gets started with Recruiting 2021 at 7 p.m. on the great GPB!