GARNER — Garner has reached the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA football playoffs because its offensive linemen have pushed, poked, prodded and pancaked defenders out of the way for runners and passers.
Coach Nelson Smith said in the preseason that the strength of his club would be the offensive line. Three starters returned from a unit that help propel the Trojans to the NCHSAA 4AA finals in 2011.
Were going to follow where they go, Smith said.
The Trojans followed the blockers on a decisive 99-yard drive on Friday night that helped propel the team to a 76-34 victory over Wakefield. The drive was set up by a huge defensive play.
Garner led 28-21 when Jordan Fieulleteau caught a Connor Mitch pass and seemed headed to the end zone. Nyheim Hines overtook Fieulleteau and knocked the ball free at the 1, where Amari Lanier recovered for Garner.
When we took the field after that play we said in the huddle that we were going to go 99 yards and score and that they couldnt stop us, said tight end Terry Gilman.
Smith called it the biggest drive of the year for his 13-0 club.
Hines stripping the ball was a huge, huge play, Smith said. But when we took the ball and drove it, it was the turning point in the game. It wasnt a big play or anything fancy. It was just blocking and running with a little passing. The offensive line did a tremendous job, but really, theyve played well all season.
The group has bonded well. Garner graduated two offensive line starters, but returned center Blair Doak, guard Anthony Galavotti and Gilman. It was the nucleus of what has become a group that allows the Trojans to rush for 291.1 yards per game and average more than 436.5 yards in total offense. Garner averages 45.6 points per game.
We had some starters and we had some other guys ready to step in, Smith said. Its a good group that works well together.
Garner doesnt have a formal practice on Saturdays, but many of the offensive linemen come each week at 7:30 a.m. to watch game tape with assistant coach Brandon Perry. The group was at ease and comfortable watching individual plays over and over on Saturday after the Trojans piled up 571 yards in total offense against Wakefield.
Cant we just move on, said tackle Terry Whitehead after several times of watching a play where he received a minus grade.
No, here it comes. Boom. Pancake, said 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior tackle Nagee Simpson.
No, he is tackling the runner and you fall on him, Perry corrected as everyone grinned. You grade it. Is that a pancake?
Later, Perry said the players grade themselves more harshly than he does. Grades are intended to motivate, to be a yardstick, but by this time of the year there is little need for motivation.
At this point, grades dont matter at all, said Gilman, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior. The pancakes dont matter. We talk about it all of the time. Winning is what matters now. Id rather get a 30 and win than a 90 and lose.
Doak, the steady center, led the teams blocking against Wakefield with a 90, meaning he blocked the right man successfully on 57 of his 63 snaps. Simpson had six pancakes, blocks where an opponent is knocked on his back.
There is nothing as good as making a block and watching the back run by, Simpson said. Were a team and we work together.
Teamwork is crucial in the playoffs. Defenses shift, linebackers and defensive backs make feints, but the offensive linemen have had so many repetitions this late in the season that they usually can make adjustments automatically, unless it is just something weve never seen before, Gilman said.
Whitehead, a 6-foot, 225-pound tackle, said the team really didnt pay much attention to the score against Wakefield as the total continued toward a season high.
I was surprised at the end when we had 76, he said. Thats a lot.
Gilman said he never thinks about the score, only the scoring margin. And against Wakefield and its prolific offense, the lead never really felt safe because of the Wolverines ability to score quickly.
Perry and his charges looked back with pride on Saturday morning, but as the players began to drift out and move to their other weekend activities there was a change in the atmosphere as a video of Leesville Roads 36-30 win over Middle Creek began to play.
One of the Garner linemen said, Three down linemen? when he saw the Prides defensive alignment against Middle Creek.
Dont worry. Theyll have eight or nine up there against us, Perry said.
There always seems to be plenty of people that need to be blocked and Gilman, who also is a standout on defense, said there is great satisfaction in blocking well.
Gilman recalled the words of former major leaguer Pat Watkins from when Watkins talked to the Garner team on Friday, telling them the satisfaction of imposing your will on your opponent.
You push them where they dont want to go and you refuse to allow them to go where they want to go.
Yeah, Gilman said. Thats a pretty special feeling.