Coach Jared Zito is so excited about his Ola High School football team qualifying for the state playoffs for the first time, not for himself but for the players who have bought into idea of playing hard and earning rewards.
“It’s exciting for your buys and the community,” Zito said. “I’ve been other places and I’ve been in the playoffs and I know what it feels like. But it’s hard for me to describe it to them. I feel like it’s Christmas morning with my kids and I’m so excited for them to be able to open their presents.”
Ola is one of five Class AAAAA schools who are going to the playoffs for the first time this season. The Mustangs (6-4) have had a historic year, going unbeaten at home for the first time and finishing with a winning record for the first time.
Ola finished fourth in the ultra-competitive Region 4 behind Stockbridge, Woodland and Jones County. The Mustangs will open the playoffs on Friday by traveling to The Swamp to play Ware County, the No. 6-ranked team in the state.
Zito expects his players to receive heart-felt congratulations when they return to school on Wednesday. School was closed on Monday and Tuesday for faculty developmental meetings. He said the enthusiasm at the school is likely to burn bright from midweek to Friday, when the school will provide a big send-off to the team.
This is Zito’s third season at Ola. He’s taken teams to the playoffs during his tenures at Dacula and North Forsyth. He inherited a strong base of young talented young players when he arrive at the McDonough school and has seen them steadily develop.
“The biggest thing is they’ve bought into the way we run our off-season weight room philosophy,” he said. “They’re bigger and stronger and because they’re more athletic it gives them more confidence. All the Xs and Os can be great and you can have a great staff, but if the kids don’t want it, it doesn’t matter. They’ve really bought into it.”
The Ola offense is led by two juniors -- quarterback Bryce Lawrence, who has thrown for 1,120 yards and five touchdowns, and running back Chris Rodriguez, who has rushed 238 times for 1,510 yards and 22 touchdowns. Rodriguez has been over 1,000 yards for two straight seasons.
The defense is led by juniors Austin Smith (being recruited by Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Kentucky), Logan Powell and Andrew Curry and senior Logan Holloman.
Lithonia scores upset win: Lithonia knocked off Arabia Mountain 20-18 on the final Saturday of the regular season to grab a share of the Region 5 championship. The win created a three-way tie for first place, but the tiebreaker left Arabia Mountain first, Southwest DeKalb in second and Lithonia in third.
Lithonia (5-5) won it when Robert Hatchett III connected with Marquez Randle for a 55-yard touchdown as time expired. Arabia Mountain had taken the lead with 58 seconds left on a touchdown run by Samad Noble.
The Lithonia win knocked Arabia Mountain out of the rankings in the final regular-season poll.