Strickland's switch to running back helps

Walton regroup at midseason and earn a second-round showdown with Central

The Walton Raiders were reeling.

They had just lost their third game in a row, a 10-7 loss to Cherokee, and were sitting at 1-4 on the season.

At the time, just finishing with a .500 record seemed like a longshot and making it to the second round of the state playoffs seemed almost out of the realm of possibility.

Yet here they are.

Since that three-point loss to Cherokee, the Raiders have ripped off six straight wins, including a 27-26 overtime victory over Harrison last week in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs.

Tonight they streak into Lawrenceville to take on the 8-3 Central Gwinnett Black Knights.

"I think we just kind of gelled at the right time," Walton head coach Ed Dudley said. "Our offensive line has gotten better over the course of the year ... and the whole team is growing together."

Midway through the year Dudley and his staff decided to move star receiver Michael Strickland, a Kentucky commitment, to running back to help with the Raiders' rushing attack.

They haven't lost since.

"Moving him back there gave them much more of a running game," Central head coach Bradley Warren said.

Strickland has rushed for 594 yards and six TDs in half a season at running back. He's also caught 32 passes from quarterback Ross Applegate, a Boston College commitment, for 579 yards and six more scores.

His move to running back has certainly sparked the Walton offense, but it's far from the sole reason the Raiders are now winning.

"That was a big factor in what we've done," Dudley said, "but I think the play of our defense has been the one solid theme through the second half of the season."

And that defense will face quite a test tonight against the Black Knights and star running back Beau Johnson, who has rushed for 1,701 yards and 19 TDs in 11 games this year.

"He is explosive and tough," Dudley said. "He's a tremendous competitor. I couldn't tell you enough good things about Beau Johnson.

"And they're going to provide a stiff challenge for our defense."

Thanks to Walton's upset of Harrison, the Black Knights get to host tonight's game. And a win over the Raiders would put Central in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1993.

"I've told them all year we've got a good football team," Warren said. "And they're starting to believe it. The three teams that beat us have a combined record of (31)-2."

But even though his team is at home, and is playing a squad that started the season 1-4, he's assured his players aren't overconfident.

They know they have to play well to win.

"We've grown up enough to know that," Warren said. "We're good, but we're not good enough to take anybody for granted."

Especially a team that's riding a six-game winning streak.