Woodward Academy Hangs Its Hat on Defense, Resiliency
I journeyed to the southside Monday evening and felt the temperature drop as the jets climbed into the sky from nearby Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The Woodward Academy War Eagles were hard at work with head coach John Hunt. It’s the week of the 14th game of the season and his team is still playing.
“What has given us a lot of consistency through the years is defense,” says Hunt. ”It has been our anchor this year. This year we have been fighting the injury bug. To sum up this group, it has been great defense and resiliency. Just battling through some adversity.”
Even before the injuries came, the Class 6A No. 10 War Eagles knew there would be challenges. Their schedule included a powerhouse from a neighboring state and a metro area titan that they may get to face again.
“That was intentional,” recalls Hunt. ”Our region is not the strongest, so for our non-region schedule I wanted to play some good quality teams that were well-coached. We played Trinity Christian. They are a well-coached team, and it was challenging for us. Then we went up to Tennessee to play McCallie … enough said there! They are a great team and they thumped us pretty good, but it was a great little learning experience for us. Then we come back down here and have a tremendous, equal battle with Marist. We basically had that game won. We were in field goal range, but we ended up fumbling the ball, going into overtime and losing. So, we had some bumps early in the season.”
The loss to Marist was way back on Sept. 8 and the War Eagles haven’t lost a game since. There has been a rash of injuries that have limited the availability of team leaders like senior center and defensive tackle Bradley Smith and senior quarterback Griffin Marshall. It has made for a challenging season for a squad that seemed destined to do great things during the off season.
“I was really happy with our off season,” recalls Hunt. “Going back to January and our lifting, it was well attended. The summer was strong, and well attended, that is what made things so confounding with the injuries. They guys really put in the work to get here, during the off season.”
So, it has been a season of next-man-up for Hunt’s team and it served them well through playoff wins over Evans and Houston County. That brought on last week’s quarterfinal showdown with No. 1-ranked Gainesville. Preparing during the Thanksgiving holiday week is nothing new for his crew.
“It was our eighth time in 10 years to practice on Thanksgiving week,” says Hunt. “We did the same schedule that we had the other seven times. The thing we did a little bit different because we ‘re so beat up, we really took it easy on them. We didn’t pound the kids at all. Which really goes against my grain. Not that I’m a big pounder or grinder, but I do know that Tuesday and Wednesday are our fast days and there is usually some contact there. We toned it down in order to try and get some guys healthy and not get anyone else hurt. It was successful in that light, but I think it showed up on Friday night. Our offensive line played perhaps our poorest game of the year. Gainesville has a great defensive line. They give a lot of people problems, but we had so many mental errors. This week we have to practice harder and just keep our fingers crossed.”
The Red Elephants brought a talented team and a 12-0 record to College Park last Friday, but it was Woodward Academy that struck the first blow. Josiah Abdullah got the War Eagles on board early.
“We started the game with a kickoff return for a score,” recalls Hunt. “It truly was a team win. Our defense gave up those two scores early, but they settled in and basically shut them out for two and a half quarters. Our special teams were solid. Hudson Hanges, our kicker, hit a school-record 49 yarder. We were down by 10 in the second half, and I came out and told coach (Bill) McGarrah and coach (Ryan) Davis, our defensive coordinators, that I was going to find a way to get more than 10. The defense held and we got the ball with about 3½ minutes to go. Our back-up quarterback Landon Walker was spot on. We put together a drive. We were able to hit two big plays and score a touchdown. We just hung in there.”
Hanging in there is what can make the difference in a season ending and a season continuing. This week’s more demanding practice could be just the thing Woodward Academy needs for a semifinal showdown with No. 4 Douglas County. The Tigers outlasted Lee County last Friday and now stand at a perfect 13-0.
“They have a high-powered offense, led by a dynamic quarterback,” says Hunt.” I know this, 13 and 0 is a perfect season and that’s hard to do on any level. I got to 13 and 0 twice and ended up getting beaten both times in the semis. It’s hard to do. You have to give them credit for that. They have had a heck of a season so far.”
This is new territory for Douglas County, who last played in a semifinal game in 1988.According to Georgia High School Football Historians Association, this will be the fourth time that John Hunt has led Woodward Academy to the semifinal round. It’s the experience that may make a difference this week.
” Last year we met up with Langston Hughes and they were…. Langston Hughes,“ recalls Hunt. “We have been in these situations before. The difference this year is our defense. Defense wins championships. Another thing is that we didn’t turn the ball over Friday night. So, I hope we play that formula. It isn’t sexy, but it was working for us. Hopefully that will continue.”