This is the second in a three-part series on the Statesboro High football teams of the 1990s and 2000s. The first part of the series can be read in the April 11 edition of the Statesboro Herald and online at statesboroherald.com.
With the graduation of the talented senior class from 2001, the 2002 Statesboro Blue Devils went 8-2 in the regular season. Their only two losses came to Screven County and Thomson, both of whom won the state in 2002. The season ended with a 14-6 upset loss to Upson Lee, but the freshman on that team ended up playing in the next three state championship games.
2003 would be the final year at Statesboro High for Buzz Busby. The Blue Devils started the season with a loss to Screven County, and a 7-7 tie to Swainsboro, then won 11 of their next 12 games. The playoffs that year saw some real battles including a 27-26 victory at Ware County, and a 27-24 win over Tucker in the Georgia Dome.
“The game was tied at 14-14 at the end of regulation at Ware County,” Tucker said. There were two scores in overtime, and they missed an extra point that would have tied it in the second overtime. The Tucker game was overtime as well. They scored a field goal, then we won on a Tavius Roberts touchdown run,”
That set up a trip to Marist and a showdown with current Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, who was the quarterback for the War Eagles. A senior laden class proved to be too much for the Blue Devils who fell 21-6.
“That was probably the coldest game I have ever coached in,” Pennington said. “They had 35 seniors on that team, and the majority of our kids were still underclassmen. We didn’t let it get us down though, and came back hungry for more in 2004.”
Busby stepped down at the end of the season, and the reigns were turned over to Steve Pennington, who was the defensive coordinator the previous 5 seasons. Pennington had head coaching experience, with stops at Louisville, Appling County and Ware County.
“I was honored and humbled to be selected to lead the football program that had a rich tradition built by many great players and coaches,” Pennington said. “I was excited for the opportunity to continue that tradition we had learned under Coach Busby’s leadership. It was a great place to be, at a great time with great people.”
Returning plenty of talent from the 2003 season, the 2004 Blue Devils started the season ranked 5th in the state, and slowly moved up the polls until they were ranked #1 by the end of the regular season.
Statesboro went through the regular season undefeated, but not without a few close games, as they won a 24-20 battle at Baldwin, and escaped Jones County with a 25-22 victory.
“Both of those games were very physical,” said Statesboro coach Kenny Tucker. “I remember in the Baldwin game we were trailing late, and quarterback David Cone hit Kennell Thomson on a 45-yard touchdown pass to give us the lead.”
The Devils then went on a low scoring playoff run beating Douglas County 12-7 in the opening round before defeating Northside 12-0, Tucker 15-14 and Salem 17-0 in the Georgia Dome.
The Northside game stands out because we scored all our points on four Zack Sanders field goals,” Tucker said. “We had some real battles with Tucker in the playoffs, winning that game in 2000 by penetration, but the 15-14 game is one we definitely will never forget.”
In what will go down in Statesboro High history as one of the wildest games ever, the Blue Devils trailed 14-10 on the road, and were marching late in the fourth to try and score.
“It was fourth and goal from the one,” Tucker said. “Both teams called a time out prior to that play. They charged them with the time out, if they had given it to us in retrospect we would have probably lost. Nick Wedlow got the ball, and we thought he had gotten in. He was ruled just shy, and Tucker took over.”
The Blue Devils were able to hold the Tigers inside the five-yard line on three straight runs. On fourth down the Tigers elected to take a safety and give the Blue Devils the ball back with less than 30 seconds to go and no time outs.
“Their quarterback didn’t try to take any time off the clock, he just ran through the back of the end zone for the safety,” Tucker said. “They had a good kicker, but he did a poor job on the kick, and we recovered the ball on our side of the 50-yard line.”
With less than 30 seconds to go it was up to junior quarterback David Cone to try and get the Blue Devils into field goal range for Sanders.
“Cone completed a couple of short passes,” Tucker said. “Then I made a terrible call. I thought we would try and complete a quick pass, and then spike the ball and try another play. Cone hit Thompson, and he was able to pick up the first down and quickly step out of bounds.”
The clock stopped momentarily, and the field goal unit rushed onto the field with less than 10 seconds to go and a 35-yard attempt for Sanders.
“Things were pretty chaotic,” Tucker said. “Coaches were screaming, and I just knew we had more than 11 men on the field. Somehow we managed to get the kick off with .02 left. It wasn’t pretty but it just did get over the crossbar.”
“They had released the balloons thinking they had won the game,” Tucker said. “When they realized we had gotten it off in time players started hitting the ground in disbelief. That was such a special victory.”
The Blue Devils were actually able to host the championship against Warner Robins before a packed house at Womack Field. A game featuring two 14-0 teams. The game was tight for most of the first half, but Demon running back Alton Sanders got going in the second half, and the Blue Devils fell 34-13.
“Their running back really hurt us in the championship game,” Pennington said. “I thought we played pretty well in the first half, but they got us in the second half.”
The Statesboro Herald will wrap up our series on the Statesboro football dynasty from 2000-2005 on Thursday with a look at the 2005 Championship, and highlight some of the top players from those teams.