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Devils on the brink of state finals

Devils on the brink of state finals

Devils on the brink of state finals

Statesboro High defensive back Michae...

With just one game standing between Statesboro and a shot at a state championship — and its sixth appearance in a title game in 11 years — it couldn’t feel more at home.

The Blue Devils (11-2) will host Chattahoochee (13-0) in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff tonight at Womack Field in the semifinals of the Class AAAA playoffs.

"We’re a pretty relaxed team," said SHS coach Steve Pennington. "I think that we’re very focused on the task at hand, but we’re also not getting overly excited or anxious about the opportunity that we have."

Playing it cool has been the name of the game for Statesboro, which has won in every conceivable fashion during this postseason.

The Devils needed a late rally to overcome a 21-7 deficit to Tri-Cities in the opening round of the playoffs and hung on for a narrow win in the second round as Griffin waged a comeback attempt of its own.

Last week, Statesboro hit the road for the first time this postseason and outlasted a very talented — and previously unbeaten — Kell squad by a count of 17-7.

Now, the Devils are in for their toughest test yet.

The Cougars have steamrolled through their schedule, leaving a trail of tattered opponents in their wake. Chattahoochee is averaging 42 points per game — second best in the state — and has been largely untested in its first season in AAAA after dropping down a classification last season.

"They have always been one of the smallest schools in their class," said Pennington. "Now, not only are they very talented, but they’re one of the biggest schools. That can give a team a lot of confidence and it shows in the way they’ve played this year."

Realignment may have helped the Cougars’ cause, but they also have more than a handful of talent to back up their gaudy record.

Quarterback Tim Byerly is in the middle of an All-State caliber season. Chattahoochee’s gunslinger has 29 touchdowns to just two interceptions through the air and has rushed for over 1,200 yards and added 19 more touchdowns on the ground.

"He is a tremendous athlete," said Pennington. "The fact that he is just as dangerous with his arm as he is with his legs makes him all the more difficult to scheme for."

"(Byerly) is definitely one of the best we’ll see," said SHS defensive end Branden Williams. "You can combine the best traits of all the quarterbacks we’ve played so far, and you would end up with someone like him."

Byerly’s partner in crime is wide receiver Kane Whitehurst, who leads the team in touchdown receptions and has also proven to be an excellent runner when he takes a handoff.

Key to slowing the Cougars’ offensive machine will be the battle in the trenches.

Kell boasted a similarly explosive offense going into the quarterfinals, but the Blue Devil defensive line was able to disrupt the line of scrimmage and throw the Longhorns off of their rhythm.

Offensively, Statesboro can’t compare to the Cougars in style, but will try to make up for it in substance.

The Devils’ relentless power rushing attack from its tight wishbone formations has proven to be effective in racking up yards and running large chunks of time off the clock.

"We make no bones about it," said Pennington. "We look to our offensive line to be our catalyst. They’ve been a driving force all year and we’ll need them to play as well or better this week to come out with another win."

In the end, it could be that Chattahoochee’s dominance comes back to haunt it.

The Cougars have won 12 of their 13 games by at least 21 points and while that may bring some intimidation, it could also hurt in that Chattahoochee’s starters aren’t used to playing a full four quarters and have only trailed late in a game once this season.

Meanwhile, Statesboro has made a living by testing the nerves of its fans.

The Devils have come from behind to win on four different occasions this season and are 8-1 in games decided by 10 or less points.

"I can’t speak for Chattahoochee," said Pennington. "But I know that our players won’t back down from a close game. We’ve worked hard all season to get ourselves to this point. We’ve had to dig down to find a way to win a few times and I have all the confidence in the world that our boys will be prepared for whatever it takes to win another one."


Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.

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