When the Columbia Wildcats visit Foxworth Friday night to take on the West Marion Trojans, a trip to the South State Championship will be on the line.
The Trojans (9-2) and Wildcats (9-2) have clashed once already this season with West Marion claiming the Marion County Football Championship with a 7-6 overtime win at home. That Oct. 16 game was an instant classic, and the rematch is shaping up to be one as well.
Columbia is limping into the matchup, though, while the Trojans have received good news on the injury front. Wildcats quarterback Carter Smith missed Columbia’s second-round matchup against Hazlehurst while in concussion protocol and is questionable to play Friday. The Wildcats also lost star athlete Josh Brown, who plays a little bit of everything — wide receiver, running back, quarterback and free safety — against Hazlehurst. He was Columbia’s starting quarterback with Smith out against Hazlehurst, but he is likely out for the year with a knee injury.
Jartavius “Tater Rabbit” Martin hurt his knee in West Marion’s win over Crystal Springs in the first round and was questionable for Friday’s game against Kemper County, but he was able to play and got two interceptions and ran for a touchdown. He didn’t play as much running back as he usually does, but Trojans head coach Brad Duncan said he will resume his regular role against Columbia.
In the first matchup, Columbia was behind the sticks a lot with pre-snap penalties, dropped or bad snaps and fumbled handoffs. Columbia head coach Chip Bilderback said after losing 22 seniors from last year’s squad, that was the first big-time game the new starters played in and they had some big-time jitters.
“We’ve played a lot of tough non-conference games and a lot of our opponents are still playing in the playoffs, but when you get into an emotional, intense battle like that, players that haven’t necessarily been in that situation before try to speed it up. It’s not out of trying not to make a play; it’s out of trying to make a play too hard,” he said. “I think people forget how many season veterans we lost off last year’s team.”
Bilderback added going into the matchup the Wildcats have to clean up their execution on both sides of the ball and play with fundamentals in the kicking game.
“They’ve had an unreal year, and we’re definitely the underdog going in it. But I love the way our kids have responded to every situation we’ve faced this year. We’ve got a plan to go in there and do whatever we can to win, and we’re going to see where the pieces fall,” he said.
Duncan said any time you have to play a team a second time, it makes everything harder because they have a great reference to look back on.
“It’s a division rival, a county rival; it’s the big one. We’re at the same place we were at last year when we had to play a division opponent again, and it’s hard to beat somebody twice. We got lucky in the regular season last year against JDC and it took us two days to win with the weather, but they came back and beat us 14-0 in the playoffs. I’m hoping that our guys are focused on that idea that we got lucky when we were able to beat Columbia the first time in overtime,” he said. “We’ve got to play better if we want to have a chance to compete with them.”
The Trojans got into scoring position multiple times in the first matchup and weren’t able to punch it in. They’ve been much improved scoring in the red zone since then, but Duncan said it’s going to be harder against the Wildcats and crucial to make the most out of their red zone trips.
“We’ve tinkered with our red zone a little bit and get into two tight end (formations) with short yardage, red zone stuff and we’ll even go tackle over and go unbalanced to one side, but we’ve got to find a way to score when we get down there,” he said. “Columbia’s defense is really, really good; there’s no doubt. It’s probably the best defense we play all year.”
Duncan added he’s sure Columbia will have a plan to run a trick play to score a home run and that the Trojans need to be prepared for it.
Kickoff is set for Friday at 7 p.m. The winner will play either Raleigh (8-3) or Magee (9-0) in the South State title game. Raleigh beat Forest 50-28, and Magee beat Morton 27-10 in the second round.