It’s a postseason party and plenty of area teams are invited.
Beginning this Friday, 192 teams throughout Georgia will begin a five-week sprint to claim one of seven GHSA state championships up for grabs. With six teams from Bulloch and its surrounding counties in the hunt, there should be plenty of thrilling football still on the schedule.
Leading the charge into the postseason is grizzled playoff veteran Statesboro.
The Blue Devils (9-1) find themselves in a familiar situation. For the second consecutive season, Statesboro — No. 3 seed out of Region 3-AAAA — must take to the road in the opening round despite having a better record than its opponent.
The Devils will load up the busses Friday morning and, 250 miles later, set up shop in Cairo for a date with the No. 2 seed Syrupmakers.
“There are some teams in the state that are more than just good teams – they’re great programs,” SHS coach Steve Pennington said. “Cairo is one of those. We like to view ourselves as one as well. I think this is going to be a great challenge for both programs.”
If Statesboro can come away with the win, it’s likely that they’ll remain on the road for the duration of their playoff run. Only a matchup against a No. 4 seed or a won coin toss against a fellow third seed will bring the Devils back to Womack Field.
Up the road in Sylvania, Screven County returns to the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The Gamecocks (5-5) weren’t able to defend their Region 3-AA title from last season, but still got into the Class AA bracket as a No. 4 seed. Screven faces a tough test as it draws Brooks County (9-1) in the first round.
In Class A, it was also a tougher season for Emanuel County Institute. At 6-4, the reigning state champions have struggled to their lowest win total since 2005, but have a veteran team that is used to winning big games in November.
The rest of this year’s postseason participants are crashing the playoffs for the first time in a while.
Down in Brooklet, it’s been a banner season. The Yellow Jackets of Southeast Bulloch put up their best winning percentage since 2002 and will participate in the state playoffs for the first time since 2003.
“This is a great time for us and we’re thrilled for the opportunity to continue playing,” SEB coach Pat Collins said. “We’re excited, but at the same time it’s business as usual. This is the postseason, but our goal of playing well and winning remains the same.”
In the Jackets’ playoff contest, they’ll take on a familiar opponent. Jefferson County was a perennial power when both schools competed in Region 3-AA. Both programs bumped up to Class AAA last season and — while Jefferson has stayed strong — SEB has used the new setting as another stepping stone in a remarkable turnaround that has seen the team go from 1-9 in 2011 to a playoff contender this season.
Back down in Class AA are a pair of teams that seem to be mirror images of each other.
Bryan County and Metter were both languishing programs before new coaches — Mark Wilson at Bryan and Mike West at Metter — have gotten things back on track. Both saw quick reversals of their fortunes before moving up to Class AA last season and suffering setbacks. The two schools stayed in lockstep this season as they rebounded to reach the playoffs as the No. 3 (Bryan County) and No. 4 (Metter) seeds out of Region 2-AA.
Last, but not least, among area teams is Claxton.
After a 6-4 season, the Tigers finished at No. 14 in the Class A power poll — good enough to make it into the 16-team public school bracket. Appeals on final poll standings were heard by the GHSA Tuesday and final brackets will be released this afternoon, but the Tigers figure to be safely into the postseason.
That’s big news for a team that has been on the outside looking in far too often.
Claxton lost its region play-in game in four consecutive seasons, then finished just tenths of a point out of the final playoff spot in last season’s power poll.
For all area teams sill alive, the rest of the season is simple. The road trips might get longer and the competition will definitely be tougher, but the only way to stay in the game is to keep on winning.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.