Playing before a large Blessed Trinity homecoming crowd Friday night, Decatur High endured some familiar bugaboos during a 28-14 defeat, its third consecutive, all within Region 6-AAA.
Notably the Bulldogs had another slow start, a refrain that’s pained head coach Brad Waggoner all season. On Friday Decatur found itself trailing 7-0 only 85 seconds into the game and 21-0 with still 7:39 left in the first half.
“Every game we’ve lost this season’s been lost in the first half, if not in the first quarter,” Waggoner said. “We’ve got to learn how to come out ready to play from the opening kickoff. I hope it’s something we can begin fixing this year, but we definitely have to instill that mentality in offseason workouts. It’s a mindset that has to change before we can become a champion.”
Nevertheless Waggoner found a lot of encouraging signs, particularly in the second half when his team outscored the eighth-ranked Titans 14-7.
“[Blessed Trinity’s] well-coached, disciplined, organized, they have 32 seniors, and they probably have the best team in the region,” he said. “But in the second half we played them straight up, and believe me this is something to build on, a foundation for every one of these players, particularly those coming back next year.”
Still, the Bulldogs dropped to 3-4 and 0-3 within the region, all but mathematically eliminating them from playoff contention. Currently the team’s seventh in the eight-team region, although it has played the three best teams -- Blessed Trinity, Woodward Academy and Cedar Grove.
Nevertheless, even if Decatur could win its final three games, it would take some fortuitous losses by the upper-echelon teams for the Bulldogs to slip into one of the four playoff spots.
“I’ve [been a head coach] nine years and I’ve only missed the playoffs once (last year at Chattooga),” Waggoner said. “I hate the thought that we might not make it this year. But then again, I’ve never in my life coached a team where I have so many players coming back.”
Roughly two-thirds of Waggoner’s roster is made up of freshman and sophomores, and that inexperience was conspicuous at times Friday. The Bulldogs committed eight penalties, which all seem to come at the absolute worst times.
They also yielded big plays to Blessed Trinity twice on third and long, and another on second and long in the fourth quarter which led to the home team’s final touchdown.
If that wasn’t enough, Decatur was playing without starting quarterback Devontae Carter, who suffered a bruised hip and bruised kidney in last week’s game. Waggoner said the kidney is fine but he’ll be checked Friday for a possible chipped pelvis. The coach is hoping Carter can return for Decatur’s next game, Oct. 26 against Towers.
On Friday Waggoner started junior Vito Antinozzi, who started every game at the position the previous two seasons.
Antinozzi, who had surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder during the summer, started slow. He overthrew several targets and delivered two interceptions, but eventually completed 9 of 18 passes for 77 yards. Seven of those were caught by senior Terryon Robinson, who finally appears healthy after nearly a month of hobbling from a high ankle sprain.
What excited Waggoner most about this game was that after Blessed Trinity’s third touchdown with 7:39 left until halftime, Decatur played its best, if not its most dominant football all season.
Over the next 18 minutes the Bulldogs ran 35 plays to Blessed Trinity’s six, finally scoring on a deft, 29-yard run by Andrew Brown with 1:43 left in the third quarter, making it 21-6.
The senior tailback finished with 113 yards on 15 carries, the most visible example of what Waggoner called “by far our best game from the offensive line.” It was also the most yardage for a Decatur running back this season.
But two plays before the touchdown Antinozzi was tackled hard while simultaneously stiff-arming another tackler. It appeared he dislocated his left (non-throwing) shoulder and Waggoner isn’t sure how long he’ll be out.
He was replaced by sophomore Joseph Comel, a transfer from Rockdale County, who’s seen almost no varsity action this season. Waggoner describes Comel as “an outstanding athlete and prospect, with a very good arm. He’s very smart and very committed.”
Friday night his throwing was tentative, completing only 2 of 6 passes and one interception. But he ran for 29 yards on five carries, including a sharp five-yard cut off right tackle for Decatur’s second and final touchdown, making it 28-14 with 4:11 left in the game.
Decatur now gets a much-needed off week before its Oct. 26 homecoming game against Towers. The Bulldogs also have games remaining against McNair (Nov. 2 at Panthersville Stadium) and Nov. 9’s Senior Night against St. Pius X.
“Losing is a hard way to learn,” Waggoner said. “But this game will pay dividends down the road for a long time. If we had to play these last three games over again, our kids would sure look at them differently. We’re a much better football team then we were three weeks ago.”