POWDER SPRINGS – The television cameras. The mammoth stadium. Brand new winged white jerseys. Another prestigious opponent.
There's no denying that the momentous performances from South Forsyth in last season's state playoffs propelled it to the stage it took in its first game, but by halftime the reality that South has probably known all along showed face.
With new starters at every skill position on offense and many more on defense, South struggled to find its rhythm in a 27-14 loss to Hillgrove in the night cap of the 25th Corky Kell Classic, hosted at McEachern High School on Friday night.
Rhythm being the key word. The War Eagles (0-1) opened holes for their running backs throughout the night and showed off plenty of power in the trenches, but critical mistakes took the wind out of their wings and helped the Hawks (1-0) to what was, for the most part, a comfortable victory.
Hillgrove, a talented Class 7A team from the same talent pool as mighty McEachern (the schools are just a short stretch of road apart), struck with two early touchdown passes from junior quarterback Hunter Arters—one a 16-yard strike in the corner to Jalen Jackson, the other a 95-yard screen pass to Tavion Walker, who broke off two tackles before showcasing blazing speed in a race to the endzone.
But the 14-0 hole South faced at the half wasn't because of domination. The War Eagles entered the redzone three times in the first half and had 13 first downs to the Hawks' four at intermission. The issue was untimely mistakes, as a turnover on downs and a fumbled exchange from quarterback Davis Shanley ended two first-half marches. The clock ran out on the War Eagles when they drove inside the 25 again late in the second quarter.
“We moved it really well in the first half and kept turning it over. If we finish and don't have those mistakes it might be a different ball game,” South head coach Jeff Arnette said. “We made deadly mistakes tonight, missed tackles. But we're going to clean those things up, and when we do we're going to be a really tough team to beat.”
South made a game of it in the third quarter when Jared Honey (7 carries, 40 yards) showcased his power on a 6-yard touchdown run, but the Hawks used a changeup in the offense to foil the War Eagle's attempt to seize momentum.
Hillgrove audaciously switched to its running quarterback, Bryson Parks, in the second half and threw just three passes the rest of the way to churn clock. After the Hawks took a 17-7 lead, they broke off a 64-yard run with tailback Trevor Smith to set up a 2-yard score from Jaylen McCollough.
South finally answered with a late drive when Shanley hooked up with Jaylen Pearson—one of the War Eagles' receivers looking to replace the production of last year's starter Jalen Camp—for a 9-yard touchdown.
By game's end South had more yards (357) than Hillgrove (349), and the rushing totals were similar with the Hawks holding a 229-203 advantage. Smith led all rushers with 10 carries for 117 yards; South showcased depth at tailback as Jake Nicholas (11 carries, 49 yards), Tyler Bowman (7 carries, 40 yards) and Honey complemented each other well.
It was a tough night for Shanley, who committed to Western Kentucky before the season. Shanley's passing lanes were often infiltrated by opportunistic Hillgrove defenders—he finished 15 of 32 passing for 154 yards, while leading the team in rushing with 74 yards on 12 carries. His dazzling footwork that made him such a touted prospect was on display in the first half, but not nearly as productive.
Despite the loss, Arnette was short and positive with his post-game address. He knows South won't face teams like Hillgrove unless they make it into back to the postseason; he thinks his team can be ready to go toe-to-toe with a team of that caliber by then.
“I think there's no doubt about that. Hillgrove is a really good football team, but we showed tonight that we can do some things. There's work to do, it's early in the season,” Arnette said. “We got a lot better on defense from last week, and offensively it just didn't click for us like it usually does. You're not going to shut us down for 14 points very often unless it's our own fault.”
South will have a shot to get things rolling next week against next door neighbor Pinecrest Academy, a Class A school but a defending region champion.
Hillgrove 27, South Forsyth 14
South Forsyth 0 7 0 7_14
Hillgrove 7 7 3 10_27
H_Jackson 16 pass from Arters (Pierce kick), 8:46
H_Walker 95 pass Arters (Pierce kick), 9:53
SF_Honey 7 run (Hardy kick), 7:02
H_Pierce 30 FG, 3:47
H_McCollough 2 run (Pierce kick), 10:40
H_Pierce 33 FG, 4:38
SF_Pearson 9 pass from Shanley (Hardy kick), 3:19