Finding Whale Branch in the second round of the playoffs has become a familiar occurrence since Jerry Hatcher took over almost five years ago.
Getting past that point, though, remains a hurdle to be cleared.
The Warriors once again seek to break new postseason ground Friday night, hitting the road to face Carvers Bay for a berth in the Class 2A Lower State semifinals.
This marks the third consecutive postseason that the Warriors (7-4) have reached the second round, and fourth in five seasons under Hatcher. But that’s where the previous three have stopped, seeing their offense get bogged down against quality defenses.
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A year ago, the Warriors couldn’t dig out of an early 14-0 hole against Marion, eventually suffering a 20-14 elimination.
“I know we’ve been close,” Hatcher said. “But we’ve got to be able to score more points. We can’t get shut down offensively. That’s kind of what happened last year.”
He noted that even last year’s first-round win over Johnsonville was a defensive struggle. The Warriors trailed Johnsonville 13-12 before Nyles Pinckney’s blocked punt set up a late touchdown.
“We’ll see if we can get over it,” Hatcher said. “With the youth that we have, it’s good to be on a five-game winning streak here at the end. I’d guess nobody said we’d be here when we were 2-4, but here we are again.”
The Warriors’ winning streak has largely coincided with the breakout of running back Irvin Mulligan, who has run for nearly 1,000 yards during the streak. The sophomore is averaging 195.4 yards per game over that stretch, with 17 touchdowns.
Last week, Mulligan rumbled for 257 yards and four TDs in a 29-28 squeaker over Mullins. That performance also allowed him to shatter the school single-season rushing record.
“All he needs is just a little crease, and he can do the rest,” Hatcher said. “We’re going to need another big game out of him. They’re going to key on him, and we can’t pass very well right now. ... If he’s under 100 (yards), we’re going to have a sad story to tell.”
Adding to the challenge is that Carvers Bay (8-3) has a similar back in Levi White, who pounded his way to 175 yards and five TDs in last week’s playoff win over Buford.
“We’re almost identical in what we’re trying to do,” Hatcher said. “We want to run the ball; they want to run the ball. But they can pass a little better than us. ... I told our kids that if you don’t beat yourselves, we’ve got a chance to win.”