Trojans seek strength from specialists

one trojan football player lifts up another
BY COREY CUSICK
THE TIMES-GEORGIAN

Before the Carrollton High School football team turns its sights to league play, it has one final tuneup to iron out any kinks across all phases of the game.

And the fifth-ranked Trojans certainly won't overlook special teams when it comes to the film room or on-field preparation. Actually, it's the first matter of business for third-year head coach Sean Calhoun.

"We have our main team meeting leading into the game week and special teams is the first phase that we talk about. It's the quickest way to get beat," Calhoun said. "We had some glaring issues against East Coweta on special teams with a couple of penalties, field position and then giving up the return. But it was good that we were able to come out with a win and still be able to correct that stuff."

Carrollton will look for a second win in as many weeks on Friday night at 7:30 when it plays host to Riverdale in the official home opener at Grisham Stadium after hanging on to a 32-27 victory over East Coweta last week in the 2018 West Georgia Kickoff Classic at University Stadium.

A group hoping to set the tone in the Week 3 romp with the Raiders (2-0) is the special teams unit, led by senior place-kicker Connor Smith-McCrum, sophomore kicker Damean Dominguez, junior punter Nick Tuggle and junior long snapper Chase Sippola.

Smith-McCrum and Dominguez are in their second season handling place-kicking duties and becoming more comfortable in their roles, while Sippola is adjusting to pulling double-duty.

Sippola served as the long snapper last year, but due to a broken thumb he wasn't able to line up at tight end. Now juggling both starting roles, it adds another dimension to his Friday night responsibilities.

"He's done a phenomenal job of getting himself in shape to, basically, play every snap of offense and then when we punt the ball remain out there on the field," Calhoun said.

Sippola understands how critical his role is on offense, but he doesn't allow it to overshadow the job he has to do as the long snapper.

"It's definitely a lot of muscle memory. You have to do the same thing over and over. If you're off just a little bit, it can either be way too high or way too low and it'll mess up the timing of the kick and get blocked or result in a bad field goal," Sippola said.

The same goes for the Trojan kickers, who continue to develop leg strength and confidence in their roles on special teams.

"Between Connor and Damean, what they've done working on their game through the spring and through the summer has been great. Damean is just now really getting into the weight room. Spring and summer he does soccer. Then Connor, he's been one of our hardest workers," Calhoun said. "You can tell they're getting more distance, more power on their kicks. They're a good weapon for us on kickoff and, obviously, when we've got to kick it through the uprights."

Smith-McCrum is the veteran among the kicking specialists and realizes the team relies on him to come through when his number is called.

"Whenever we're inside the 40, if they don't get the first down, I know they're going to call for me and I'm supposed to be that guy that's supposed to hit the field goal every time," Smith-McCrum said.

Dominguez is still a relative newcomer to the gridiron. With a soccer background, he was summoned to the varsity level last fall as a freshman and showed off tremendous thunder on kickoffs and field goals as the long-distance option.

"I came out starting on the ninth-grade team. I was really nervous because I had never done it before. As I progressed, I got better, my leg got stronger and I'm here today kicking for varsity," Dominguez said.

Just like any other position on the field, there is plenty of pressure on the specialists to deliver — sometimes even more so since they are singled out when their time comes.

Smith-McCrum got a full dose of that last year upon connecting on the game-winner against Kell to cap off an incredible 45-42 comeback win.

"I definitely had to seal the nerves that time," Smith-McCrum recalled. "My heart was pounding on that one. It was very nerve-wracking, but I was glad I could punch that one through."

Whether it be receiving, kickoff/punt coverage or on field goals, if special teams is not all on the same page, it can turn into a game-changer in a matter of mere seconds.

"On special teams if everybody doesn't work as one, we can get an offsides penalty or not execute our plans and they can return a punt or block a field goal," Sippola said. "So it's really important that we're all working as one unit out there."

The Trojans are focused on working as one come Friday night when an upstart Raider squad comes to town on the heels of back-to-back wins to open the season.

Having defeated Riverdale by a combined 105-21 over the past two seasons, Calhoun warned his ballclub that this is a completely different animal in 2018.

"You're talking about a group that's 2-0 and flying high. They played really good. One of the first things I told the team in our team meeting was, 'This is not the Riverdale of the last two years. You better not think like that and you better be ready for four quarters,'" Calhoun said. "They've got a kid going to Clemson, they've got a massive offensive and defensive line, they've got athletes everywhere. They do a good job on offense of motioning in formations, getting dudes in space. Defensively, they blitz, blitz, blitz. This is going to be a four-quarter game and we've just got to find a way to make some more plays."

Friday also marks Youth Night at Grisham Stadium, where the Carrollton Parks and Recreation Department teams will be on hand. One team, in particular, will be recognized as the CPRD's 8U state championship squad from last season will get the spotlight with head coach Carnell Key serving as the honorary captain for the Trojans.

And with Region 7-AAAAA play right around the corner, the Trojans are focused on getting all phases clicking as they start moving toward the middle of the regular season.

"We've got to come out there and play a full game. We haven't played a full game yet. We've pieced together some plays here and there, but Friday night we've got to come out and play a full game and execute," Sippola said.

Friday night's contest will broadcast live on KISS 102.7 FM.