The high school football season typically begins with morning practice in August before classes begin and practice is moved to the after-school hours. If you have a good season, you make the playoffs. If you have an exceptional season, make it to the quarterfinals. This is Quarterfinals week and there are no classes so teams can practice again in the morning. One moment comes full circle, and it’s Thanksgiving week. For those teams who have yet to put their gear away, there is much to be thankful for.
“We set up our vision board in August that we were going to play and practice on Thanksgiving,” recalled May’s head coach Tony Slaton. “So for this week the idea is to get her in early, get the work done and then get her out here to spend some family time. But our main focus is Friday night. We go to Dutchtown and try to get a win.”
Slaton is in his ninth season with Mays, but it is his first season as a head coach. He rose to the top job when Nikita Battle departed in May after six seasons at the helm of the Raiders. Slaton introduced some changes, such as a 7:45 a.m. breakfast and a team dress code that had set days for collared shirts, business attire, and jerseys and jeans. It was a culture shift that included families.
“It all started with the parents accepting our approach,” Slaton recalls. “Many of our children have not been able to play middle school football due to the COVID situation and have not played in ninth or tenth grade. We’re a very young football team.”
After 3-7 straight seasons, the Raiders seemed full of potential but lacking in experience. The team needed some leaders, and Slaton was pleased to see leadership coming from where he needed it most.
“One of the most improved players on our team is quarterback Saulamon Evans,” beams Slaton. “Throughout the season we watched him grow into the player and leader that a quarterback should be. We put it on his shoulders and he rose to the challenge.”
Before leaving, Battle left behind a challenging schedule. The Raiders lost out-of-region contests to Douglas County and Class 6A No. 1 Hughes and, on their season mark of 2-2, faced regional rivals Creekside in a game postponed to Monday night. The Seminoles won a 22-21 thriller, but the Raiders’ season would be changed.
“A lot of the kids grew up together and played recreational ball together,” says Slaton. “Many of the coaches at Creekside and on my staff know each other, went to school together or even played college ball together. It was like a sibling rivalry playing a backyard game. It was about being disciplined and fighting through to the end. It came down to a two point conversion which Creekside gave us but our boys didn’t feel defeated even though it was a loss. That helped us knowing we could play with the best of them.”
Another regional loss followed and the Mays defense took the lead with their record of 2-4. The Raiders beat Villa Rica, Tri-Cities and Banneker without giving up a single point.
“We were fortunate to have three shutouts in a row,” says Slaton. “It boosted our defenders’ confidence. They dropped points in the last regular-season game, but it gave them a chance to learn from mistakes. We’ve had four shutouts in total this season. Great for confidence.”
That confidence propelled the Raiders on a five-game winning streak before taking on a second-round match against a Cass team who made the upset special by beating Jefferson last week.
“Cass has a really good football team,” Slaton recalls. “The coaches did a great job with these kids, preparing them to go to Jefferson and come away with a big win. This was tremendous for their program and for the community. We didn’t fall for the hype. We just came out playing Mays high school football. That means playing fast, playing physically, being disciplined, being enthusiastic and winning the game. We all ticked those boxes on Friday night.”
Triston Morgan had 18 carries for 178 yards against Cass to lead the attack.
“He’s been in the program four years and he’s a really hard-nosed runner,” Slaton said. “Our other running back Quintarion Kelly was down because he had two turnovers. He ended up with six carries for 89 yards and a touchdown. The running game was solid for us against Cass.”
This was a very special week at Mays. The Raiders are back in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2017. Slaton says alumni and parents provided food for the team each day. A team dinner is even planned for Saturday, regardless of the outcome of the game on Friday evening.
Oh, by the way, there is such a game. Mays meets a Dutchtown team who have a record of 11-1. Like the Raiders, the Bulldogs’ defense has had four shutouts this season, and there’s this individual that both programs have in common. Coach Nakita Battle is still fresh in the minds of the Mays players. His success in his new Henry County post comes as no surprise.
“Coach Battle did a fantastic job at Dutchtown,” says Slaton. “Being with him when he took over here at Mays and knowing what he brings to the table… structure and discipline, I knew he would do well down there and continue their tradition of success.”
This will be the first meeting between Mays and Dutchtown in football. There is no story there, but there is a connection between Battle and Mays. Both coaches remain focused on the game. Any sentimentality will have to wait.
“Maybe the reactions will come after the game,” says Battle. “Just before kick-off I might feel something. I have tunnel vision and look ahead, I can’t look back. I know my kids are waiting for me to show them some form of emotion. I’m just blessed that I don’t have them right now.”
“I’ve heard a lot this week,” says Slaton. “You play your former boss. What do you think about it? It’s not Coach Slaton versus Coach Battle. It’s Mays vs. Dutchtown. We do similar things, so it will be like two brothers competing against each other. Let’s see who can prepare our teams well enough to take the win.”
The Mays Raiders are among the bright spots in Atlanta Public Schools this fall. Six APS teams earned playoff spots, four of which advanced to the second round. This week, Carver and South Atlanta meet Mays in the Quarterfinals.
“This is really great for Atlanta Public Schools,” says Slaton. “It really shows what kind of talent we have, with the kids who have chosen to stay at their home schools and play together. I think at every school we have kids who play recreational ball together and middle school soccer together and it shows. It says a lot about the coaching we have at these schools.”
In this week Football Fridays in Georgia will show Walton and Carrollton. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on the Great GPB! Happy Thanksgiving!