It may only be the first round of the playoffs, but tonight’s matchup between Statesboro and Thomas County Central has all the makings of a title bout.
The two schools have ten state championships between them — five for each — and have nothing but the highest expectations for themselves each season.
“We tried to make that point clear all week,” said SHS coach Steve Pennington. “We aren’t just playing the 2011 version of a team. We’re going up against a terrific football program with a great history of success.”
Sporting a perfect record and its second straight Region 2-AAAA title, the Blue Devils have the No. 1 seed and home field advantage for tonight’s game against the No. 4 seed Yellow Jackets. Thomas County Central (6-4) struggled in region play this season, but most of that was due to the fact that Warner Robins and Northside, Warner Robins — who wouldn’t surprise anyone if they made an appearance in the Georgia Dome — were a pair of tough games on the Jackets’ schedule.
“You can pretty much throw the seeds out the window,” said Pennington. “Thomas County Central is a very good team that had the misfortune of being in one of the best regions in the state. They’ve certainly seen some top-notch competition, so we know they’ll be ready for us.”
Both teams should be fully aware of what to expect from each other tonight. In addition to boasting state titles, both schools also have a trademark offense that has taken them on so many of those deep playoff runs.
Statesboro fans can expect the same, steady dose of power running from the wishbone – an offense that has picked up a lot of steam over the last month. Senior running back Michael Summers is just nine yards short of topping 1,000 yards this season and Quan Daniels (729 yards) looks to be recovering from a nagging ankle injury.
Also adding to the ground game is Reid Pennington, who has rushed for over 300 yards in the Devils’ last four games from his spot under center.
“Our offense has been executing well lately,” said Steve Pennington. “That’s going to have to continue. We’re going to have to score plenty to get a win.”
Pennington still has plenty of faith in his defense — one which held Ware County 26 points under its season average in the region championship last week —but knows that his squad will be tested.
Tonight marks the twentieth consecutive trip to the state playoffs for TCC, and all of them have featured the Jackets’ veer option offense. Much like the Devils’ attack, TCC is content to grind the clock and methodically drive down the field, but also has plenty of big-play potential in its backfield.
Statesboro has held off good offenses plenty of times this season, but no one on the Devils’ side of the ball has ever faced this look.
“It’s just something that we haven’t seen,” said Steve Pennington. “We got pretty good at defending the spread, but that was when we faced it week after week. The fact is that Thomas County has been running this offense for over 20 years and knows it like the back of their hands. We’ve only had a week to look at it.”
The team that can best adjust to a unique offense being thrown at it will have the edge in this game, but a win will require four full quarters of effort as the championship nature of both squads isn’t likely to lead to players shying away from the postseason spotlight.
After coming within a play of reaching the state title game last season, Statesboro has made it no secret that a championship is on its mind this season. Winning every game is the motto for the Devils, but now that the playoffs are here, it’s the only option if they want to keep playing.
“We always strive to win every game we play,” said Steve Pennington. “Now, it’s very simple. There’s only one game on the schedule, and winning is the only way to get to another game. We know that it’s going to take a lot of effort, but improving with each week is something we preach. If we can do that now, in the playoffs, that’s how we attain that main goal and get to where we want to be.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.