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Blue Devils ready for region playoff action

 Around this time last year, Statesboro High School finished the season with back-to-back losses— including a 7-2 loss to Starr’s Mill in the state playoffs.
    However, this is a new season for the Blue Devils and after finishing the regular season with a 12-2-1 record, Statesboro looks poised to make a deep playoff run.
    Statesboro starts their playoff journey today against Coffee High School (7-8, 2-6 Region 3-AAAAA) in the first round of the region tournament.
    A first round loss in the region playoffs would be considered a failure of a season, said SHS boys soccer coach Nick Thrower.
    “We are 12-2-1. So far I think we can label [this season] a success. If we do not win on Wednesday then the season as a whole, despite our winning record, won’t be seen as a success,” Thrower said before a Monday afternoon practice with the team. “We really want to win this so we can say ‘yeah we had a good season.’”
    Although Statesboro comes into Wednesday’s matchup as the No. 1 seed in the region, posting a 7-1 region record, the Blue Devils aren’t taking Coffee High School lightly.
    Last season as the No. 4 seed, the Trojans defeated No. 1 seed Richmond Hill 1-0.
    “We are cautiously optimistic. We are in a good position, but Coffee has been here before,” Thrower said. “We don’t want them to repeat that success, so we’re definitely going to implement our game and adjust to Coffee. We’re going to attack Coffee the way we know how.”
    Part of that vaunted Statesboro offensive attack features Alex Wagner, Manny Rodriquez and Mercer Tedders.
    This season, the Blue Devils have outscored opponents 41-13.
    However, Statesboro will miss the physical presence of midfielder Uche Okafor. Okafor went down with an injury and Coach Thrower said he will not be available for today’s game.
    In his place, freshman Nash Welch has stepped up. Thrower said Welch’s play as of late has been exciting to watch.
    “We all train the same. [Uche Okafor] is big and fast and I just have to fill that spot. Everyone is competing for their spot, so you just have to go out and compete,” Welch said.
    Welch had a big career moment in the final regular-season game. He scored his first high school goal against Southeast Bulloch. The Blue Devils went on to win 5-0 over the Yellow Jackets.
“I was just surprised no one came to get it,” laughed Welch about his first career high school goal. “We learn to crash the box and it just came down and it was just there. We’ve had a lot of training and spring break was great. We were able to train harder and now we’re ready.”
    Due to the Trojans’ style of play, more pressure will be put on Statesboro’s defenders. Thrower said CHS will try to send balls over the top instead of passing through the midfield.
    Center defensive midfielder Dillon Jones said the team’s chemistry has been great this season and he’s happy to be on a competitive team.
    “I think we’ve been playing really well. I thought it would be hard to blend and get chemistry with all the players, but its been pretty easy,” Jones said. “The school I went to was a 3-AAA school. Our team wasn’t very good but Alex [Wagner] was the first one to talk to me and made me feel welcome.”
    Jones, who transferred from Union Pines High School in North Carolina, along with defenders Thomas Sullenger, Justin White and goalkeeper Kyle Altman will have their hands full.
    "I think we do a good job to combine and work our way to opportunities. Our defense is really good, besides all the yellow cards we get," Jones said, laughing.
    Coffee County's style of play may bode well for the Blue Devils. With the Trojans trying to send the ball over the top, it could open up passing lanes in the middle, Thrower said.
    "When a team uses a long ball tactic like that, a lot of times it will open up space in the midfield and be able to hit our passing patterns and work our way through," Thrower said. "Our biggest issue is to not play Coffee's style. The temptation is going to be there since they will play direct all the time. We can't play direct like that, we have to try to avoid that."
    A win against the Trojans will advance Statesboro into the state playoffs. The Blue Devils will also put their four-game win streak on the line when they take on Coffee High School at Womack Field. Game time is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

    Horace Holloman may be reached at (912) 489-9408.