Gladiators look to end 3-game skid when they host Bulldoggs

When Clarke Central and Winder-Barrow meet at 7:30 p.m. today in a Region 8-AAAAA game at Billy Henderson Stadium, one team will look to start a streak while the other team will hope to end one.


Chris Starrs

The Bulldoggs (1-7, 1-5) snapped a 31-game losing streak last Friday with a 31-17 victory over Cedar Shoals while coach Leroy Ryals and his Gladiators (3-5, 3-3) fell to Flowery Branch 24-13, marking their third consecutive loss, the team’s first such streak since 2005.

Although Winder-Barrow will no doubt enter Death Valley hungry for another victory, Clarke Central is still in the playoff hunt in the region and desperately needs to have a good outing.

“It’s huge for both teams,” Bulldoggs coach David Wagner said. “When you look at their films, you can see they’ve had a string of bad luck. They caught some bad breaks in some big games. In this region, anybody can win on any Friday. This is a big test and big step for us to go on the road in a hostile environment and try to win another football game.”

Although Clarke Central is smarting from losses to Heritage, Gainesville and Flowery Branch, all three were winnable games that the Gladiators let slip away, which distresses Ryals to no end.

“We just can’t stay healthy — we’ve got to try to get healthy,” said Ryals, whose team has lost a host of players — including running back Rodney Willingham — to injury. “We haven’t started the same lineup from Day One. And we’ve got to play four quarters. In the past, we won the close games because we played well in the fourth quarter and we made key plays. This year we haven’t done that.

“We’re not talented enough to give away opportunities. Last week, we had the ball in the red zone three or four times in the first half and only came up with six points. When you play good competition like that, you can’t give anything away. In past years we’ve been able to capitalize but this year we haven’t been able to do that.”

But even with the injuries and uneven play, the Gladiators have a good shot at reaching the postseason for the seventh straight year, if they can top Winder-Barrow tonight and rival Cedar Shoals next week.

“In spite of everything, we still control our own destiny for the most part,” Ryals said. “This is the biggest game of the year for us, and the biggest obstacle for us as coaches is getting the kids to see that. And we’ve just got to play better. If we don’t play better, we won’t beat Winder. It’s not like we can just roll our hat out and they’ll run.”

When asked what concerned him the most about Clarke Central, Wagner quipped, “It will take me a lot less time to tell you what doesn’t concern me.” He also said the key to the game will be keeping the ball away from the Gladiators’ still-dangerous offense.

“You can’t look at the record and say, ‘They’re not very good this year.’ They’re extremely good,” said Wagner, who had three running backs — Chad Platt (143 yards, two touchdowns), Chandon Sullivan (103 yards, one touchdown) and Al Schotter (109 yards) — all rush for more than 100 yards against Cedar Shoals. “We’ve got to control the football and sustain drives and keep the ball away from them. We need to keep their defense on the field and not give them a ton of opportunities with the ball.”

Ryals, who’s been watching tape of Winder-Barrow all season against other teams in the region, said with injuries sustained on the offensive and defensive lines last weekend, he’ll have yet another starting lineup in the game tonight. He added he’s aware of the trap Winder-Barrow can set, but he remains more concerned about his own team than their opponent.

“They’re coming in with some confidence and they’ve overcome some adversity,” he said. “I’m not too involved in what they’ve done or what they’re doing. All I know is they’re good enough to beat us if we don’t play better.”

History is on the side of the Gladiators. According to the Georgia High School Football Historians, Clarke Central has a 10-0 all-time mark against Winder-Barrow and only one of the 10 games has been close — in 2006, the Gladiators defeated the Bulldoggs 10-9 at W. Clair Harris Stadium in Winder, a year when Clarke Central went 6-5 and Winder-Barrow posted a 1-9 mark.

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RT @chris_starrs: UGA’s Christian Payne saw his first playing time last week against Arkansas. http://t.co/eFBPVIEFWV

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