Time is an asset during the course of a football season.
Time helps teams heal and brings back key players, allows teams to find identities on offense and defense and integrate new wrinkles. Whale Branch Early College High School coaches thought their team might struggle at Allendale-Fairfax to open the Class 1-A Division I playoffs, a week after having played the Tigers to end the regular season.
But time wasn't on the Tigers' side. Whale Branch mastered Allendale-Fairfax's tendencies, won on the road and advanced to Friday's second round -- a trip to Estill, where time has produced another effect, allowing the Gators to improve and evolve since losing to the Warriors on Sept. 21.
Estill won four of its final five games of the regular season, losing a shootout at Allendale-Fairfax. The Gators were without a quarterback, a nose guard and a fullback during the first meeting with Whale Branch.
The Gators also are using different formations in an attempt to spread the field and clear running lanes, Whale Branch coach Jerry Hatcher said.
"We've got a challenge," Hatcher said. "They look every bit as good as Allendale to me, if not a little bit better."
The Warriors won the first meeting, 32-20 -- the first time Whale Branch has defeated Estill in the program's three seasons. But the game was closer than the score, Hatcher said. With Estill driving late and down 26-20, the Warriors returned a fumble for a touchdown to secure the final margin.
While Hatcher respects Estill, he also talks up his Warriors team. The first-year Whale Branch coach said the Warriors have formed an identity on offense since Estill, going from only calling plays to coaches knowing how they want to approach a game.
And on defense, Hatcher said the Warriors are tackling better, if not as well as the former Beaufort High School defensive coordinator wants.
Whale Branch (7-3) continues to pile up program milestones. Its playoff victory Nov. 2 was the school's first. A victory Friday would top the seven wins in 2011 for most in the school's brief history.
"We're doing a lot of firsts, and the kids are buying into it," Hatcher said. "We'll get to the end of the year and look back and see what we accomplished. Right now, everything's dialed in."
A victory Friday would send the Warriors to a Lower State final against either Johnsonville or Hemingway. Hatcher is not allowing the Warriors to think that far.
He's worried about Estill's big running backs, including senior Sharvas Brown, who averages more than 100 yards per game and has rushed for 11 touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Brown provides a power running game with sophomore Jarvis Singleton, who has rushed for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns.
DeAngelo Bryant, a 170-pound sophomore, provides the quick burst to change pace.
The Warriors last week received a boost from their special teams, returning a blocked punt and a kickoff for scores to run past Allendale-Fairfax on the road. The rest of the game was evenly matched, Hatcher said. But the Warriors had nailed down the Tigers' tendencies and when Hatcher talked to his defense late in the game about adjustments during a timeout, his players waved him off and assured him they had it covered.
Hatcher hopes that focus carries into Friday.
"They want to win," he said. "They're not worrying about basketball and other things. They're focused on football right now."