The road to the Class AAAAA state playoffs officially kicks off tonight at Grisham Stadium.
And Region 7-AAAAA play rips right into the heated rivalry of the Villa Rica High School football team traveling to Carrollton for the 7:30 p.m. showdown, where the pair of local foes will square off for a third consecutive gridiron campaign and 56th meeting overall.
With both the Wildcats (1-1) and No. 5 Trojans (2-0) having only two non-region tuneups to prepare for the region schedule, second-year VR head coach Rico Zackery and third-year Carrollton head man Sean Calhoun are still tweaking some things early in the campaign in order to make a push for the postseason in 2018.
Villa Rica opened with a 34-20 setback at Campbell before rebounding in a 28-19 victory over M.L. King on Aug. 24 and then had an open date last week.
"We've definitely had some growing pains the first two games. It was kind of good to have that bye week last week because we were able to fix some things that we've seen in our two games and just work on us and try to get better every day and try to get on some of this youth as quick as we can," Zackery said. "We knew going into Week 3 that Carrollton is very good, obviously."
The Trojans survived a 32-27 comeback bid by East Coweta in Game 1 and then rolled Riverdale last week in a 35-6 decision to build some momentum for Game 3, although Calhoun said there's still plenty of things to improve on as the season unfolds.
"I think the best thing is I feel like we've gotten a little bit better at something each game, which is always a positive," Calhoun said. "But also with each game comes new corrections. It's always a work-in-progress. Obviously, you hopefully get to build depth with who can play and who can't play in what situations and everything like that. I've been proud of the kids and proud of the different game plans because you're going to have different game plans for different teams. This Friday, obviously, our defense is going to have a totally different game plan than they've had in seeing the Wing-T."
Carrollton eked out a 36-34 barnburner last season in an October encounter, which was also held at Grisham Stadium, and both coaches anticipate that same type of back-and-forth battle this go-around. But they also fully understand that it's two different teams than the ones who met last year and you can't put a whole lot of stock as to what went down nearly 12 months ago.
"While we remember last year and losing the game, the players understand that this is a different Carrollton team, this is a different Villa Rica team," Zackery said. "We've just got to do the things that we do and try to not beat ourself."
Calhoun agreed that there will be some sense of familiarity, but plenty of new elements on both sides tonight.
"They've got some new wrinkles this year that they really haven't shown in the past. But when you get these two programs on the same field, I think you can anticipate a finish like it was last year," Calhoun said. "That's what we're expecting. That's what we're expecting from them, to get their best for four quarters because I know they're going to get our best for four quarters."
After facing a pair of teams that did the bulk of their damage through the air, the Trojans have spent the past week working on containing the Wing-T. Even though the Wildcats prefer not to throw the ball all that much, Calhoun said you can't completely dismiss it, either.
"They're not a pass-first team, but they are going to try it. That's when Wing-T, option teams hit you because you're so focused and geared up on stopping the run and that's when, boom, they hit that waggle or they hit that play-action or just a simple drop back and hit you over the top," Calhoun said. "They want to run the ball and they're not going to make any qualms about it. I mean, that's what they want to do. We're going to have to be focused and locked in at different formations and motions. They do a real good job with that."
On the other sideline, Zackery stressed the importance of his players not making the mistakes that take them out of the game.
"I really do believe that we've just got to come out and take care of ourself. We can't do things to beat ourself. Carrollton doesn't make a lot of mistakes, so we can't make a lot of mistakes and give them opportunities to capitalize," Zackery said. "I think at the end of the day, if we can minimize our mistakes and make sure that we control the things that we can control, we'll have a chance."
Of course, emotions always run high in rivalry games such as tonight's Week 4 tussle, and both coaching staffs have reiterated the importance of not putting the individual before the team and jeopardizing not only the outcome of tonight's contest, but potentially next week, as well.
"We've been kind of talking about the difference between playing with emotion and playing with passion. Playing with passion is a lot different. Playing with emotion is kind of up and down and all around the place. Playing with passion is playing for the love of being there and the energy and all that kind of stuff," Zackery said. "We definitely can't play the emotional game. We've got to be level-headed and no matter what happens, we've just got to work hard on the next play."
Calhoun is also hopeful that his players can feed off the emotion and energy of the crowd tonight, noting that both sides are going to be fired up from well before the opening whistle.
"I know the Trojan Nation is going to show up strong and I know the visitor stands will be slam-packed. The biggest thing for our fans is just making noise," Calhoun said. "There's one thing about being there, which is outstanding with the support that we get. But our kids need it to be loud and our kids need to know the appreciation of our fans stand up yelling and cheering. It's going to be a great atmosphere, that's for sure."
Tonight's contest will broadcast live on B-92.1 FM.