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Pennington: Preparation for 08 must begin now
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Statesboro High running back Nic Lanier, right, hurdles a blocker and escapes a Richmond Academy defender while taking the ball down to the 6-yard-line earlier this season. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file
    For the second consecutive season, Statesboro bowed out in the first round of the state playoffs with a double-digit loss, falling short of expectations of not only fans, but the coaches and players themselves.
    “I’m really proud of the way that we progressed from week one until the end of the season,” said coach Steve Pennington. “Not so much in the x’s and o’s, but in the leadership qualities and the chemistry of our team. When you go back and look at the beginning part of the season, our chemistry had a lot to be desired. We were really searching for leadership early on, and as we progressed, we had some players who matured in that regard.”
    The Blue Devils (7-4) were rolling merrily along at 5-0 until they met an up-and-coming Evans squad on Oct. 12 in Augusta. The Knights shut down Statesboro 10-7 and started a trend of Statesboro losses which involved a mysterious disappearance of offense.
    Two weeks later, the Devils lost to Effingham County and only managed a field goal. Two weeks after that, SHS lost to Ware County in a shutout. Last week, Statesboro went on the road to Bainbridge and jumped out to a 14-0 lead but never got close to scoring again and surrendered 28 unanswered points.
    Pennington said he has already begun to reexamine the 2007 season — everything from early season conditioning to the utilization of players to the programs expectations. He added he was proud of the job his coaching staff had done with a team that may have been less talented than the dominant teams of the past but remained competitive.
    Coming out of fall camp, many believed the Devil offense would be Statesboro’s strong point with a depleted defense having to fill big holes with young talent. It was the other way around.
    The SHS defense allowed just eight points a game during the regular season and just seven points in the first half against Bainbridge.
    Anchored by Deangelo Tyson on the defensive front, Willie Burden and Willie Sheldon played outstanding seasons. Linebackers Weldon Watts and Rob Pennington were forces to be reckoned with and defensive back Aaron Cone led the team in interceptions after playing quarterback in 2006.
    The Devils were hampered by injuries to key players all season, including lineman Jeremy Scott (eye), linebacker Reggie Perkins (broken arm), kicker Matt Conner (broken foot) and tight end Sherrod Natson. Running back Nic Lanier was banged up the final leg of the season, while tail back Patrick Jenkins (ankle), quarterback Luke Connell (broken collarbone) and lineman A.J. Sampson were all hurt in the final game against Bainbridge.
    As for 2008, SHS should again be strong at almost every position.
    Lanier, Jenkins and Connell all return to the backfield, along with Tremaine Hagin and Jonathan Coleman.
    Cone, Joe Collins, Jeffrey Spells and Roquell Gamble should be back in the secondary while Burden and Shelton will be back on the defensive front.
    The biggest question mark will be the offensive line, which loses Natson, Sampson, Kevin Groover, Adolphus Raymond and Thurman Bradley. The Blue Devils will also likely face an entirely new region in 2008.
    “We have a very large and strong junior class this year,” said Pennington. “We anticipate this group, who has been together for three years, to take it upon themselves to make their mark and finish their four-year tenure very strong. Within the confines of the junior class we have a number who have been waiting in the wings. It is imperative that preparation begins now — mentally, emotionally and physically. I’m eager to see how they will respond.”
    Statesboro has now made the playoffs every year since 1998.