By Gabriel Stovall
ATLANTA, Ga. — Up until last week, coach Bobby May watched his Westlake Lions football team have a relatively easy journey through the postseason.
There was the Lions’ 42-10 first round win over Houston County to start things off. They followed that up with a 55-13 drubbing of Richmond Hill. These lopsided results coincided with every game Westlake had played since that narrow 26-21 win over region foe Langston Hughes back on October 16. Since that game, Westlake defeated its next six opponents—playoffs included—by a combined score of 317-54.
That includes a 51-0 win over a formerly state-ranked Lovejoy squad and a 42-7 triumph over always-talented Tucker during the home stretch of the regular season. So although a narrow 27-24 win against Allatoona in last week’s Class 6A quarterfinals may have felt like a shock to the system to those who’d become accustomed to Westlake steamrolling through opponents, May actually found the ability to appreciate a win in that tight contest as a sign of program maturity.
“I’m most pleased with our perseverance in that game last week,” May said. “I think some of our teams in the past here have been known for not performing well in the postseason when they get down. We’re kind of known for when it gets cold we don’t perform well. I think teams in the past would’ve quit in the Allatoona game when things got tight, but we gutted out a six-and-a-half minute drive to gut out the game. To pull that game out after we had a couple of turnovers that could’ve lost it for us said a lot.”
Now comes Lee County, the perennial South Georgia power that May says few people probably think Westlake has a chance to beat. The Trojans (11-1) have had a similarly impressive postseason path, most recently defeating River Ridge 49-31 to set the stage for this week’s Class 6A semifinal. Add in the hostile environment they’ll welcome Westlake into, and it could be a recipe for disaster for Westlake.
Or, it could be a chance for May’s program to show the state exactly how much it’s grown up.
“I think we’re ready for it,” May said. “We’ve kinda accepted the us-against-the-world mantra in this game. I don’t think many expect us to go down there and win, but it’ll be fun for us to compete.”
May attributed last week’s sometimes sloppy performance to a little bit of hubris and a bad week of practice. He didn’t see any of that from his squad this week.
“The teams we’ve played in the playoffs so far are traditionally tough teams, and we played really well for the first two rounds,” he said. “But last week turnovers almost cost us the game. We didn’t practice too well before Allatoona. I think we may have gotten a little overconfident after two relatively easy wins, but we’ve had a great week of practice this week, and we’re ready to go.”
May said he’s wary of the fact that Lee County has considerable sized upfront and a pair of game breakers in 3-star running back, Caleb McDowell and 3-star wideout, Chauncey Dogwood. Dogwood signed to Kentucky during Wednesday’s National Signing Day early period.
To be sure, Westlake’s got its own bevy of playmakers, starting with sophomore quarterback RJ Johnson. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound signal caller has passed for 3,197 yards and 26 touchdowns to only four interceptions while completing a whopping 71 percent of his passes. He’s also rushed for 305 yards and four scores on the ground as a part of a balanced Westlake ground attack.
Senior receivers Leo Blackburn (51 catches, 1,059 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Decari Collins (51 catches, 868 yards, 8 touchdowns) are his two favorite targets.
Of course, this deep into the season nobody’s playing at 100 percent, but May said he believes his team is healthy enough to put a competitive product on the field in tonight’s game 7 p.m. kickoff.
“Nobody’s healthy right now,” he said. “Everybody’s playing right now. We ask our guys, are you hurt or are you injured? And if you’re not injured to where you can’t play, you’ve got a lot of guys who know they’ve got to suck it up at this point of the season. But we feel pretty good about what we’ve got. And Lee County’s pretty healthy too.”
Tonight’s game is just the second time Westlake’s gotten to a semifinal game. The first time it happened was when former coach Kareem Reid took the 2016 team to the Class 6A semis where it fell 28-0 to Roswell. That means tonight sets up a potential program milestone if the Lions can escape Leesburg with a win.
“It would be a monumental win,” May said. “It would be huge for the direction of our program, because we’re trying to get where Lee County is where we’re considered a state championship contender from year to year. To win would be huge for our program, but also for South Fulton. Our backs are against the wall in this one, but we’re ready for the challenge.”