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College Football: Four Catawba starters will play in home state on Saturday

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Catawba head football coach Curtis Walker wore a veteran T-shirt (from 2000) and brought five veteran players to Tuesday’s press conference.
Four of the players — outside linebacker Kyle Kitchens, inside linebacker Trey Evans, guard Quinzavious Sands and cornerback Case Woodard II — were there for an obvious reason. They’re all Georgia natives, and Saturday’s game at 2 p.m. at second-ranked West Georgia is going to be a homecoming for them. West Georgia is in Carrolton, west of Atlanta, and all four members of Catawba’s “Georgia Connection” played high school ball within 75 miles of Carrolton.
The fifth player at the press conference was quarterback Mike Sheehan. Sheehan is from Wilmington, N.C., not Georgia.
“Yeah, but we don’t do anything without Mike,” Walker said with a laugh.
Sheehan is almost like a coach now, although he runs quite a bit faster than a coach. He can recite the playbook in his sleep. He was the No. 2 quarterback as a redshirt freshman and this will be his third season as the starter. He enters his final season with 50 touchdowns (27 passing, 23 rushing) to his credit. Stat-wise, he’s not going to be an All-American, but he proved last season that he’s a guy who can lead a team to championships.
Sheehan is optimistic about the coming season. He has tough, skilled backs to keep defenses honest. The offensive line, with left tackle Brandon Floyd back from an injury, added more than it subtracted. Sheehan believes the receiving group, bolstered by talented freshmen, is the best he’s had to work with it.
And don’t even get Sheehan started on the Catawba defense, which returns nine starters.
“The best thing about getting this season started is that I won’t be seeing our defense across the line of scrimmage anymore,” Sheehan said, shaking his head.
Walker’s retro T-Shirt looked plain by today’s standards, but it’s meaningful to him — and it still fits. There’s a lot of words and numbers on the back of the shirt, detailing the accomplishments of the 2000 Catawba Indians.
For the period from 1999-2001, Catawba was 33-5 and one of the elite Division II programs in the country. Walker was an assistant coach to David Bennett on those teams. The 2000 team was ranked first in the region and second in the nation after an unbeaten regular season. That team is especially relevant this week because the 2000 Indians beat West Georgia in a playoff game at Shuford Stadium.
“The guys we have now were very young then,” Walker said. “They didn’t know about those great Catawba teams, so we’ve talked to them about them about those years. It’s important to share with our current players the tradition of Catawba football. But last year our guys created their own identity. They set a standard of winning the South Atlantic Conference championship and going to the national playoffs. Now anything less than that standard will be disappointing. People have expectations for us and we’re happy that they’re excited.”
Walker said Catawba “got bullied” in the second half by West Georgia last season when the Wolves pulled away in the second half and beat Catawba, 44-13, after a competitive first half.
Walker said West Georgia has reloaded, with a veteran defense and transfers, some of them D-I transfers, replacing graduated offensive standouts.
“I think it helps us that we played them last year, and we know what it’s going to take,’ Sheehan said. “We’re better prepared. We know what we’re going into. We know the kind of atmosphere we’ll be playing in, and it’s a game a lot of us have been getting ready for since spring ball.”
If Catawba is going to win at West Georgia, it’s going to take a huge effort from all of Catawba’s Georgia recruits, and that includes two freshmen cornerbacks from Atlanta, Chris Page and Cedrick Gervin. One of them is expected to start at the corner opposite Woodard.
Woodard, who played high school ball in Lithonia, Ga., 70 miles from Carrolton, will be counted on to take away one side of the field without help.
“Last year when we played West Georgia, I wasn’t comfortable yet, was still learning the Catawba system,” Woodard said. “This year West Georgia will see a different player. They’ll see the player that the SAC saw every week.”
Woodard’s play backs up his confidence.
“He plays as hard and as tough as any 150-pound guy possibly can,” Walker said. “He can take a good receiver out of the game.”
Kitchens, from Decautur, Ga., enters the season as the reigning region defensive player of the year and made All-America teams as a sophomore.
“He’s a premier player,” Walker said. “He practices hard, but then on Saturdays he surpasses even that, and goes to another level. He has a great work ethic. He’s smart, and he’s always prepared to make plays.”
Decatur is about 57 miles from Carrolton.
“That means I’ll be playing in front of more family and friends than I ever have in college,” Kitchens said.
Evans, from rural Barnesville, Ga, east of Atlanta and about 73 miles from Carrolton, didn’t get many accolades last year. Walker nominated all four linebackers for All-SAC honors, but only the outside backers, Kitchens and Jamal Lackey, were recognized by the league.
“Evans and our other inside backer Michael Peppers are playing with a chip on their shoulder — and I like it,” Walker said. ”
Evans said it’s like a family affair whenever he, Sands, Kitchens and Woodard get together. They’re closer than standard teammates because of their common background.
“There are times when it’s important for us to be leaders,” Evans said. “Being from Georgia, we can be the guys pushing everyone at practice because we know we’ve practiced where it was hotter than it is here and we’ve practiced in greater humidity.”
Evans believes that he and the defense have improved in lots of small ways from last year.
“We didn’t get any shutouts last season, but we’re capable,” Evans said. “The motto this season is if they don’t score, they can’t win.”
Sands, a powerful left guard who will a full-time starter for the first time as as sophomore, is from Douglasville, just 28 miles from Carrolton.
“West Georgia recruited me some but didn’t make an offer,” Sands said. “But Coach (Brian) Hinson came to my high school to see me three times and Coach (Kevin) Brown also came. I knew Catawba really wanted me.”
In Sands, Catawba landed a 280-pound road grader.
“He’s good at pulling and he’s a dominating run-blocker,” Walker said. “He’s working hard to master pass protection.”
While Sands, Woodard and Kitchens will have a lot more family and friends than usual at the game, Evans is going to boost attendance in Carrolton the most.
“They’ve got a busload of people coming from my high school,” Evans said.
It’s going to be heck of a test to start the season. Sheehan will set the tone for Catawba’s offense. Kitchens is only a junior, but he’s the guy the Indians will look to as the leader on defense.
“I got a lot of awards last year, but I don’t worry about winning awards,” Kitchens said. “Awards can wait. Awards come if you have a great season. They come if you win championships.”

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