CALHOUN, Ga. -- The only thing more terrifying than Calhoun's opponent in Friday's GHSA Class AAAAA quarterfinal may be the drive to get to the game.
Then again, the Yellow Jackets haven't let adversity take them down during a challenging and injury-plagued season, so why should a 321-mile drive through Atlanta on Black Friday bother them?
Once they complete the trip to Waycross, Calhoun (9-3) will have to deal with top-ranked and undefeated Ware County.
The task, as daunting as it seems, isn't new to Calhoun. The Jackets, on their way to the 5A state championship game, won a 49-42 shootout a year ago at Ware. Much, however, has changed in a year's time for coach Clay Stephenson's team, including Lady Luck's fickle fancy.
Last November Stephenson had a team as healthy as one could be after 11 games. This season? Well, not so much.
Nearly every Calhoun offensive skill player, from quarterback Trey Townsend to running back Caden Williams to super sophomore Emaree Winston, has missed at least one game with injury. The line has had to be shuffled numerous times. The defense, where Williams and Winston were expected to be stalwarts, has had to go without them most of the season.
Stephenson shakes his head when asked about the plethora of injuries.
"I don't remember having this many injuries," he said. "We had a broken leg in our scrimmage and it's progressively gotten worse. It's been a lot, but I'm good with what we've got.
"It's been a trying year, but we've got kids who have stepped up and who are ready to play. You tell them all the time you never know when your time is coming and, for the most part, they've hit the field ready to play."
So ready, in fact, that Stephenson said last week's 34-7 win over Kell, a game played without Williams and with Winston leaving it early with injury, was the Jackets' most complete game of the season as guys like Corbin Fuller and Kaleb Ray took turns making big plays.
Williams, a 1,500-yard rusher a year ago was rounding into form after an early-season injury, and according to Stephenson, has had a good week of practice after getting banged up in the opening game of the playoffs. He is expected to play Friday and Townsend is also good to go after playing the entire game against Kell.
The rest will be "game-time decisions." In other words, depth built out of necessity will again be needed to defeat a Ware County team that owns wins over three other state quarterfinalists -- Region 1 foe Coffee County and Class AAAA powers Benedictine and Bainbridge.
The Gators, like Calhoun, had to replace the majority of their offensive production from last year, including quarterback Thomas Castellanos, who gave the Jackets fits in last year's game that wasn't secured until Calhoun forced a fumble at the 2-yard line with under a minute to play.
Ware has, however, put up similar offensive numbers behind quarterback Nikao Smith (2,037 yards passing, 22 TDs), running backs Dae'Jeaun Dennis (994 yards, 12 TDs) and R.J. Boyd (616 yards, eight scores) and receiver Jarvis Hayes (43 catches, 822 yards and 12 TDs).
It's on the defensive side, though, where the Gators are most dominant, having allowed 84 points in 11 games. No team has scored more than two touchdowns on them.
"Defensively they've got a bunch back," said Stephenson, whose team put up over 500 yards in last year's meeting, 447 through the air. "They were really young last year, but have seven or eight back. They are so good on the back end, so we were going to have to be able to run the ball to be able to throw it."
"It's going to be a challenge, for sure, but I know the guys on this team are ready. There's a lot on the line and they are fired up about it."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @youngsports22