Columbia Star

Westwood hosts Flora in opener

South Carolina High School League football is back. And one of the more intriguing season opening matchups is the A.C. Flora Falcons traveling to Westwood to take on the Redhawks Friday, September 25.

“It feels like a little sliver of normal,” A.C. Flora head coach Dustin Curtis said. “I’m sure a lot of coaches had their doubts about whether we would get here. But now that we’re here we are excited and ready. We know there will be challenges throughout the season with football and things we can’t control off the field. But it’s better to have the opportunity than not at all.”

“Everyone is relieved we got to this point,” Westwood head coach Matt Quinn said. “It was only a few months ago that even I thought we wouldn’t get to this point. We’re all happy and excited. It’s helped the kids’ mindset at practice. They don’t take anything for granted. They use to complain about working out and running. But after going through all of this, they are excited to workout and excited to run. I’m thankful for that.”

A.C. Flora’s Matthew Pack

Curtis returns to Westwood, where he coached from 2017 to 2018 going 13-11 in his two seasons. While that will be an interesting side note to Friday’s contest, neither coach is focusing on it.

“It’s about the players,” Curtis said. “They probably got tired of hearing about how Coach Curtis came back to A.C. Flora last year. The last thing they probably care about is Coach Curtis going back to Westwood. I have people there I’m close to. I loved my time working there. It’s going to be fun, but there isn’t any kind of extra pressure on me.”

“I don’t think it adds anything to our kids,” Quinn said. “I think it adds to me and Coach Curtis. I worked for Coach Curtis as an offensive coordinator. We’re both competitive and want to beat each other. It’s all fun and games.”

Both teams come into the 2020 season after having successful campaigns in 2019. A.C. Flora went 10-2, won the Region 4-4A title, and advanced to the second round of the 4A playoffs. Westwood went 8-4 and also made it to the second round of the 4A playoffs.

While so much of SCHSL 2020 football has been unplanned, one thing that was planned was realignment. The new realignment has Westwood and A.C. Flora in the same region. With other region foes like Dreher, Richland Northeast, and Irmo still rebuilding, it makes the Falcons/Redhawks matchup one of the most important in the region.

“Starting the season with a region game and one of this magnitude against an opponent this good, I’m kind of nervous going into it because we haven’t had the non-region games where teams usually make those normal mistakes that happen in the first week or two of the season,” Quinn said. “We’re trying to focus on being mentally prepared and eliminating those early season mistakes that every team has.”

“There is a little extra pressure that we don’t normally feel for the first game,” Curtis said. “Typically if you lose a non-region game, its not the end of the world. Now with only 16 teams making the playoffs, that puts more pressure on it than anything. You can’t really have more than one mistake and even that could put you in a three-way tie, and you could still be out.”

A.C. Flora comes into the 2020 season with high expectations, partly due to the amount of returners from the 2019 season, which includes defensive linemen Jayline Brown, Amoree Stephens, and Omarion Hammond.

The three defensive linemen, along with linebackers Myles Trull, Porter Hane, and Tyrell Greene will play big roles in stopping a Westwood offense that will depend on running back Nick Gilliam and quarterback Rashad McCain.

The bigger matchup may be on the other side of the ball where A.C. Flora returns nine starters including running back Matthew Pack and wide receiver Eriq Rice. Pack will play a particularly important role as new quarterback Ethan Beamish starts his first game for the Falcons.

Westwood will lean on returners like cornerback Zikef Johnson to lead the defense.

Discipline will be a main focus on both sidelines as both teams try to eliminate turnovers. In its two losses in 2019, A.C. Flora was minus eight in the turnover margin.

Curtis also wants to make sure his secondary is on the same page to reduce a lot of big plays.

On paper, Westwood and A.C. Flora feels like a good matchup; something more conducive for a middle of October game than a season opener. However, given what has taken place in the past six months just to reach this point; teams, coaches, and fans are just glad to be playing football.

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