You won’t find another team in the state playoffs that made a greater turnaround from 2018 to 2019 than Ola. The Mustangs turned last year’s 1-9 season into a 7-3 success, setting a school record for wins and earning the second trip to the postseason in school history.
Ola will open the playoffs with a trip to No. 4 Ware County, oddly the same opponent it drew on its first trip to the playoffs in 2016.
“I know our kids will play hard and compete,” coach Jared Zito said. “They believe in each other and play for each other and that’s been one of the biggest things.”
It’s never easy to rebound from a forgettable one-win season, but Zito and his staff took solace in the fact that the 2018 Mustangs were very young and endured a stream of injuries. They had a feeling good things were ahead.
“It was never an issue of not playing hard or having turmoil or kids quitting,” Zito said. “It was just youth, combined with injuries, and things started going sideways.”
The benefit was experience and playing time. A lot of youngsters got a lot of snaps, play that can’t be duplicated in practice. And a turning point came in the off-season, when players were issued a workout shirt with a huge question mark on it. They had to prove to the coaching, through their effort and dedication, that they deserved a shirt branded with the school’s name.
After selecting the first handful of recipients to receive the school shirts, Zito turned the decision over to the players. Those with the question marks now had to prove to their colleagues that they were worthy of an upgraded jersey.
“We told them, ‘It’s your club. You have to decide who to let in the club,’” Zito said. “Every kid who dressed on our varsity had to go through the process.”
The leader is quarterback Hunter Kautz, a senior who has thrown for 1,460 yards and 14 touchdowns and run for 980 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“What I love about him, is he is one of the toughest kids I’ve been around in 22 years of coaching,” Zito said. “He’s so tough … emotionally, physically … the kids just believe in him.”
Running back Karl Kennedy has rushed for 815 yards and five touchdowns and receiver Kas Stephens leads the team with 35 receptions for six touchdowns. They run behind left tackle Chandler Dunham, a 6-foot-4, 280 pound lineman likely headed to Nebraska.
The defense is anchored by linebacker Baylen Sanders, who has 127 tackles and broke the school record, and junior defensive end Devin Lee, who has 12.5 sacks and 11 hurries and is starting to gain attention from college scouts.
“Our defense does a good job of playing smart, getting lined up in the right place, and they play relentless, they play fast,” Zito said. “We’ve got some good players and they believe in what they’re doing.”
Ola’s only three losses came against Region 4’s three state-ranked teams. The Mustangs lost to No. 8 Dutchtown 13-7, to then-ranked Stockbridge 27-22 and to No. 7 Jones County 23-14.
“That’s three tough losses and at least one of those we thought we should have won,” Zito said. “We’re battle tested if nothing else.”
Lithia Springs wins mini-game: A late-season charge by Lithia Springs helped get the Lions in three-team tie for fourth place in Region 6. It forced a three-team mini-game and the Lions emerged with a pass to the postseason for the first time since 1981.
Lithia Springs will be making its first trip to the state playoffs. The Lions competed in the region playoffs in 1981 and 1978 under coach Melvin Crook -- when only two teams per region advanced to the state playoffs -- and fell short.
Lithia Springs beat Maynard Jackson 3-0 in the first leg of the mini-game, then defeated defending region champion Banneker 7-6 in the second portion.
Lithia Springs (4-6) won three of its last four games and forced a three-way tie. The Lions will play at Clarke Central in the playoff opener.
Chamblee ends streak: Chamblee defeated Miller Grove 14-13 last weekend, which enabled the Bulldogs to avoid a wineless season. It also gave first-year coach Scott Schwarzer’s team its first region win since 2016, a stretch of 15 games. Chamblee’s last region victory came against Columbia on Oct. 29, 2016.
Union Grove stays home with seven wins: The only team with a winning record in Class AAAAA that didn’t make the playoffs was Union Grove. The Wolverines finished 7-3 and defeated Stockbridge. But they lost a head-to-head contest with Ola and failed to qualify for postseason. It’s a case of being in the wrong league; there are three teams with .500 records and five with losing records who advanced to postseason.
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