It didn’t take long for West Forsyth to become accustomed to playing an 11th game each season.
Despite having only five seasons of varsity play under the program’s belt, No. 8-ranked West will make a third consecutive appearance in the state playoffs when the Wolverines take the field against Collins Hill tonight on the West campus.
The Wolverines are a 13-point favorite in the Maxwell Projections, but whether or not they reach a 12th game and beyond for the second straight year may largely depend on their ability to mirror the first seven games of the season.
West (9-1, 6-1) breezed through the majority of its 2012 schedule en route to a 7-0 start before losing 29-28 to Chattahoochee (7-3) on Oct. 29, then needed overtime to edge Lambert (5-5) 17-16 and secure the Region 6-AAAAAA championship last Friday.
Against Lambert — a game West was favored in by 22 points — the Wolverines were flagged for six false start penalties, fumbled the ball three times and gave up two big plays that led to a game-tying touchdown on the Longhorns’ final drive of regulation.
Entering an unforgiving postseason that offers no second chances, the Wolverines understand that they cannot afford to have those same kinds of self-inflicted wounds.
"Preseason, regular season, playoff season — every level is tougher because the teams are better and putting more into it, so the emphasis is not to make mistakes," Wolverines head coach Frank Hepler said.
"You just really focus in on practice about ball carriers securing the ball, quarterbacks making good decisions, linemen making the right blocks, defensively wrapping up. All the little technical things you coach throughout the year, you just go back and harp on them."
Said senior tight end Ty Anderson: "We’ve just got to get back to what we do. We’ve fallen off of that the last few weeks and that’s our main focus, get back to what we do and play like we are [capable of] playing."
Last season the Wolverines became the first team in Forsyth County history to win a playoff game in Class 5A, which was, at the time, the state’s largest classification. Playing in the newly created Class 6A this year, West has a chance to make history all over again.
The team standing between the top-seeded Wolverines and that goal is Collins Hill (6-4, 5-3), the No. 4 seed from Region 7-AAAAAA. Though the Wolverines and Eagles have never faced one another at the varsity level, they have at least one thing in common: Both teams saw their 2011 campaigns end at the hands of Grayson, the team that went on to win the Class 5A state championship.
The Rams handed Collins Hill a 32-7 loss in the opening round of the state playoffs, before ousting West in a 33-7 victory in the quarterfinals.
Collins Hill has missed the state playoffs only three times since 1999 and made an appearance in the Class 5A semifinals in 2010. Hepler expects to get the Eagles’ best effort tonight, but feels the Wolverines are battle-tested in that respect.
West may have flown under the radar during its playoff run a year ago, but the program has been ranked in the Top 10 in Class 6A since Week 2 this season and has not taken anyone by surprise.
"The last five weeks it’s been that way," Hepler said. "We’ve come out and teams have given us their best game, no more evident than last week against Lambert.
"Their season was over going in and they hadn’t played well [for several games] and they came out and gave us that type of game. That’s proof that we’re getting everybody’s best game. [We’ve told our players], ‘You’re ready for this because you’ve already had to play against everybody trying to give you their best game.’"
Collins Hill runs the spread offense behind quarterback Brett Sheehan, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior committed to Florida International University. Wide receiver Justin Wyatt, a 6-foot-2, 188-pound senior, is committed to Ohio.
Collins Hill has outscored opponents by an average of 33-16 this season despite playing in the same region with No. 2-ranked Norcross and No. 4-ranked North Gwinnett, two squads which have accounted for half of the Eagles’ four losses. By comparison, West has outscored opponents 39-18 this season.
"That whole seven or eight teams [in Region 7] could be playoff teams in different regions throughout the state and Collins Hill is not your typical No. 4-seeded team," Hepler said. "We’ve got to be ready. They’re going to come in here with great athletes and give us a great game."
All things considered, the Wolverines might be in as good of shape as they could be entering the playoffs. The offense is a senior-stocked group with postseason experience from last year’s run to the quarterfinals and according to Hepler, the entire team is healthy and ready to go.
The Wolverines’ schedule, by playoff standards, also appears favorable. West will not face a fellow Top 10 squad before the state quarterfinals, at the earliest, if the team makes it that far.
"It helps that some of us have been there before," Anderson said. "We’re just trying to get a little bit farther than we did last year and get that state championship."
If West’s recent success on its home field remains true to form, the team could be in for another deep postseason run.
The Wolverines have not lost a game on the West campus in more than two years, a 10-game winning streak dating back to Oct. 29, 2010.
West will try to extend that run a little bit longer tonight against Collins Hill. The Wolverines and Eagles kick off at 7:30 p.m.