Hanging around the practice fields at Statesboro High, the same feeling always lingers in the air. No matter the result of the last game or practice, the Blue Devils are never too high and never too low. The Devils may have ridden a wave of great play into the 2010 state semifinals, but it’s their workmanlike attitude that makes them favorites to go deep into the postseason again this year.
Last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s preseason poll named Statesboro No. 3 in Class AAAA — the best ranking for any team in the classification in the southern half of the state. With many fans and prognosticators whispering of a sixth state title this season it would be easy for pressure to mount, but the Devils feel right at home as the regular season is about to begin.
“We know that there are some big expectations for us,” said SHS coach Steve Pennington. “Sometimes, that can get to people, but the truth is that we’re used to it because of the big expectations that we put on ourselves every season. This year is no different. We’re going to go out there every Friday night expecting to win and striving for a region championship.”
One thing that is certain to lend the Devils a hand in their quest for a second-straight Region 2-AAAA title is their experience.
The past few seasons have seen Statesboro scrambling to get new quarterbacks, running backs, linemen and linebackers comfortable by Week 1, but large numbers of returning starters highlight both sides of the ball this season.
Defensively, the Devils’ biggest strength is in key returning starters at all levels. Shaq Johnson and Lenard Robinson will be forces along the line while Reggie Owens — who was injured for the first half of last season — heads up a strong linebacker corps. In the secondary, Haydon Rollins and Marquavius Hunter man the corners with Ben Roberts providing help over the top.
Great Blue Devils teams from years past relied on a blueprint of suffocating defense and a grinding offense to win games, and while this year’s defense should be plenty stout, the SHS offense is stacked with big-play potential.
Heading up the attack for the second year will be senior quarterback Reid Pennington. Last season, the Devils did much of their damage on the ground, but it was Reid Pennington that kept numerous drives going with third down completions and who passed Statesboro out of a big second half deficit in its first round playoff game.
“I’m excited about the new season,” said Reid Pennington. “With so many guys coming back, we can open up the playbook and do a little more. We should be tough to stop.”
The main targets that SHS opponents will be chasing are running backs Michael Summers and Quan Daniels. Summers was dinged up through the late stages of last season, but is 100 percent healthy and has added more muscle for his senior season.
Daniels was the breakout star of 2010, going from backup duty in the opening weeks to workhorse and routine 200-yard rusher throughout October and November. After garnering All-State honors in just his sophomore season, Daniels knows that he’ll be targeted, but is still planning to shine.
“I think I’ve improved since last year,” said Daniels. “I think that see the defense and hit the holes better. Last season, I was more concerned with when I would get the ball. This year, I’m working on blocking for other guys. We can win, but it has to be a team effort.”
In order to repeat as region champions, the Devils will have to outlast some of the toughest competition in the state. Statesboro’s No. 3 ranking is the highest in Region 2-AAAA, but Brunswick (No. 5) and Ware County (No. 8) also have the attention of the state polls.
The Devils will jump right into the fire next week as they open the regular season with a home game against Brunswick, which will be looking for revenge after Statesboro won a pair of games in Brunswick last season.
Statesboro gets a break in its region schedule as Brunswick and Ware are both in the south division of Region 2-AAAA and can’t challenge the Devils for a spot in the region championship game. Still, the Devils will have two long road trips to Augusta and must avenge last year’s loss to Liberty County if they want a chance to defend their region title.
Ultimate success in region or state competition is still months away from being determined, but it’s the Devils’ ability to aim for both the long and short term goals that make them such a force. They know that they have enough talent. They have been within seconds of a state championship game. But still, it’s doing all the little things right in the summer and fall that must happen before another playoff push can begin.
“There are always things that we can improve on,” said Steve Pennington. “Sure, we have our goals and we know what we expect of ourselves at the end of the season, but it’s the hard work that we put in right now and along the way that is going to allow us to finish where we want to be.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.