Both teams will have the same goal in mind when they meet at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in Douglasville — win and host a first-round Class AAA state playoff game. For the Lions (5-4, 4-2 Region 4-AAA), it is yet another big game in a season that started at the University of West Georgia.
"I guess that's a good sign when you're playing big games, and we've played a few. That's a sign that things are heading in the right direction. We're playing a team that has improved a lot since the beginning of the year as you watch them progress through the year, especially through the region schedule," Central coach Grant Chesnut said.
Coming into a game with home-field implications — the Panthers (5-3, 4-1) can clinch the No. 2 seed with a win on Friday, while Central needs a victory on Friday and then have first-place Callaway beat Rockmart next week should the Yellow Jackets win this Friday — the Lions played a game they needed to play last week. After a pair of tough losses, Central turned it around and played a solid four quarters in a 35-0 win against Jackson.
"It was big. Any time you go from seven turnovers to no turnovers, it's amazing how that changes the game. It was critically important that we bounced back with a win, but to play like we did and respond with a win. We're very much a maturing program. We were in a situation last week where we needed to win to get in the playoffs and got the win," Chesnut said.
As a program that is in its second year under Chesnut trying to put a winless season in 2010 behind them, the Lions are also a young team. The Central coach noted that during this season, eight sophomores and a freshman have started for him, including the quarterback, fullback and other key positions. With a young group, the expectations have been downplayed, but not with this much on the line this Friday night.
"At one time I didn't really stress those things as much. But now I think we're at a point where our kids need to be able to deal with that kind of pressure, understand that they have to perform in big games and hopefully we'll do that. We've had a pretty good week of practice. Their minds seem right. It's been a few years since Central has been in the playoffs, and they're excited about that," Chesnut said.
The positive of having such a young roster has been the continual growth the team has shown throughout the year. It does, however, also create a little bit of a roller-coaster situation for the Central coaching staff.
"They're a lot better and that's basically the best way to sum it up. Their eyes aren't the size of silver dollars at the beginning of every game like they were. They've settled in. The great part is, because they're young, I haven't really seen a ceiling yet. You're not leveling off. Now, you do see more up and down and maybe something you thought you fixed, but the ups seem to get higher. That's the positive of a young team," Chesnut said.
Standing in the young Lions way is a Chapel Hill team that seems to be hitting its stride at the right time. After opening the season 2-3, the Panthers have reeled off three straight wins to set themselves up with the opportunity to finish behind Callaway in the region standings. They have done it with an opportunistic defense and a consistent offense.
"Offensively, their quarterback does a great job of operating their offense. He throws very catchable balls and they are very consistent at what they do. They've got a very good running back. They're in the shotgun a lot, but are able to run it and stay balanced," Chesnut said. "They play hard on defense and have some really good players over there."
While the Lions have already ensured a playoff spot and know they won't have a losing regular season, the steps that could be made by hosting a postseason game and finishing with the first winning record since 2005 could have repercussions beyond this season.
"If we could find a way to do those things — have an overall winning season and host a playoff game — it would be huge. I wouldn't dare underscore that. It would be a great step for us as we're hoping to build a program. I think that we've managed, at least as far as the regular season's concerned, we can't lose more than we win. That's a huge step for us. Then the fact that we're in the playoffs and gives us an opportunity to keep playing," Chesnut said. "It's been a great season and a couple more wins would be very exciting for our program."