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Not the way they planned

GSU's seniors never expected their last game to mean so little

     They never saw it coming, but Georgia Southern’s 13 seniors got trapped smack dab in the middle of the biggest transition in Eagle football history.
    Mike Sewak, the 2004 Southern Conference coach of the year, recruited the group to Statesboro by telling them the simple truth — at other schools you play for league championships, but here we compete for national championships.     
    The guys signed on and won more conference games than any team in the league during Sewak’s four years at the helm. During that span, GSU averaged 8.75 wins a season and made three trips to the Division I-AA playoffs.
    But after a second-straight first-round postseason exit last November, Georgia Southern handed Sewak a pink slip and the unprecedented overhaul began. New coach Brian VanGorder stepped in and promptly changed nearly every facet of the Eagle program.
    Entering Saturday’s 1 p.m. season finale against Central Arkansas, the Eagles (3-7, 2-5 SoCon) have put together just the second losing season in GSU’s modern era. They’ve lost more times at home (four) than any other team in school history and dropped four-straight games for just the second time ever.
    “It’s been different,” linebacker Jason Earwood said.
    Center Lance Wayne agreed.
    “This has been a real rough year,” Wayne said. “No one wants to do this, especially their senior year.”
    Although this year was far from what anyone expected, the team’s seniors have been commended for their attitude, effort and optimism.
    “Every Tuesday you come out here and you could go in the tank and just say, ‘the heck with it,’ but these seniors are upbeat,” junior fullback Dusty Reddick said. “They are excited, they’re pushing us and it’s good to have a group like these guys. It hasn’t been the right season, but our seniors have been positive about it and fought through it.”
    Said VanGorder: “Obviously, it’s been a tough time for (the seniors) with the transition and such, but I think they’ve enjoyed a lot of the things that are going on in the program. I think they feel good about the program, and I think they are very optimistic about what is going to take place. I have a lot of respect for them, just how they’ve really stayed together, stayed positive and provided us with good leadership.”
    Several seniors said is hasn’t sunk in yet that their final game in blue and white is just a few days away.
    “You get a funny feeling every time you put on your pads,” Earwood said. “You think, ‘I’m putting these on for the last time, I’m going to do this for the last time.’ It’s a funny feeling, but I’m looking forward to the atmosphere (of) Senior Day.”
    The group is hoping this year’s struggles weren’t in vain and have helped lay a foundation for the coming seasons.
    “Adversity builds strength, and the (underclassmen) see that this senior class came to work everyday even though the season wasn’t good,” Wayne said. “That’s what they can build on in the future.”
    And with several close losses this season, the group can’t help but feel that things could have been different.
    “We are this close to (having) a totally different season, and there’s really no other way to put it,” Earwood said. “We are this close, and we’ll have to keep building on that for next year. You can’t blame anybody, you can’t point fingers. We are a team, we are working hard and we are going to go out on a good note regardless of the record.”
    The seniors played this season with a heavy heart after losing star receiver Teddy Craft, a key member of their class, in a fatal motorcycle crash this summer. And for the final game of their career, they have just one wish.
    “All I want is for our last game in Paulson Stadium to be a win,” receiver Darius Smiley said. “It’s tough going into the game with a losing record and not having anything to play for, but we are just trying to get a win. My four years here are the best memories I’ve had so far. It’s been up and down, not only for myself, but for the team as a whole. A few catches here and a few blocks there, and we are 8-3, 9-2 or something like that. But it didn’t happen, and we’re stuck with a losing record. We’ve got to move on, and hopefully the younger guys can learn from this and come back next year and have a good year.”
    Added linebacker John Mohring: “It’s been rough, a lot different than we’re used to, but we can go out with a big win this week and have a little better taste in our mouth.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.

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