Coaches discuss playoff approach as underdog, contender

Status entering postseason tournament could influence team’s strategy

The state playoffs begin next week, which means it’s win-or-go-home time. Some teams will be expected to win state titles, and others will try to flourish as underdogs. Coaches who have been to the playoffs in numerous seasons likely have seen their teams play both roles.

South Atlanta coach Michael Woolridge said his Hornets refused to accept mediocrity last season, when they came into their own ... and went into the quarterfinals unranked. This season, the team is embracing the contender role with a 9-0 record and No. 2 ranking in Class 2A.

Greater Atlanta Christian coach Tim Hardy, whose Spartans played in the 3A title game in 2016, said the tournament’s sense of finality drives his team, which this season is 5-4 and will play Centennial on Friday for third place in the region.

Marietta coach Richard Morgan, whose teams have lost in first-round games and won a 7A title in 2019, doesn’t see teams as favorites or underdogs in the playoffs. Hapeville Charter coach Winston Gordon, who won a 2A title with the Hornets in 2017 and will enter the playoffs as a No. 4 seed in 4A this year, said he expects to win every game.

In their own words, here’s how the coaches responded, when asked if they approach the playoffs differently if they’re a contender or an underdog.

Michael Woolridge, South Atlanta

“It’s not the underdog mentality now because we’ve been in the top five all year. This year, we’re getting the exposure we wanted, but now we’re the hunted. We can’t approach it any differently because everyone is good in the playoffs. They’re all good at preparing game plans and making adjustments. When I got here (in 2020), we (were 7-4) and won region, so I wanted to improve on that. Our expectation was to win region and make a deep playoff run. We won region, went 11-2 and reached the quarterfinals. Now that we’ve met those expectations, we’re shooting for the semifinals and championship. It was different last year because no one saw us coming. Now we have the reigning leading rusher (Keyjuan Brown), and we’re on the map. We need to embrace this role. I told them, ‘Last year, we had to prove everybody wrong. No one expected us to be here. With the spotlight on the program this year, we have to prove everybody right.’”

Tim Hardy, Greater Atlanta Christian

“First of all, every season and year is unique, as far as what that looks like. The biggest thing when you step into the playoffs is that it’s a different level of intensity, a sense of finality. There’s not going to be a next week for half of the teams each round. Mature teams understand that, and knowing the level of attention to detail required to succeed and advance is huge. In the playoffs, you can never assume anything or underestimate anybody. You just shoot every bullet you’ve got in order to advance. ... This year, our team is a really young, so this is a great opportunity for us to step into the playoffs so that our guys who are new to it can get the education of the seriousness and intensity of it. It’s a chance for them to step in and create their own stories.”

Richard Morgan, Marietta

“Honestly, I don’t pay attention to any of that (underdog-contender talk). The playoffs are a whole separate season. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as favorites or underdogs in a one-game season. The records go out the window, and the team that wins moves on. We’ve got to play better for 48 minutes, regardless of records or rankings, and that’s the approach we take when we go to the playoffs. ... A lot goes into winning games, but if you get caught up in the records and rankings during the regular season, then you’re taking away from what’s ahead of you. It’s high school football, and it’s teenagers trying to play their best to win that night, and that’s how you advance. Focusing on anything else is a detriment to the game plan.”

Winston Gordon, Hapeville Charter

“My process is always the same. I go into every game thinking we’re going to win. I have never gone into a game feeling like an underdog because we have athletes, and if we prepare them the right way, and coach them up right, they’re going to do what we need to do to win the game. People might see a down season this year (the Hornets are 2-7 and started 0-6), but we lost four of our games by one point, and every opponent was 6A or 7A, at first. My approach is always the same, and that’s to make sure we maintain the same culture. Win every rep, every snap. I just tell our kids we have an expectation. Even when we were 0-5, 0-6, we still thought we were the better team. It’s a culture, and they see all the players here who have gone onto college and even the NFL. The approach will always be the same if you’re trying to win.”