CLAXTON — In just a few short years, Claxton has gone from perennial doormat to consistent contender.
Now entering his fourth and final season with the Tigers, quarterback Michael Peel is determined to keep the momentum going and challenge for a spot in the state playoffs.
In a state with so much talent and competition on the football field, it’s a rarity to find a four year starter. Even rarer still is when that player has been under center for his entire career, but that is the luxury that Claxton has in its field general.
“Michael Peel is a special kid,” said Claxton coach Allen Cartwright, who has overseen the Tigers’ turnaround in his first five years at the helm. “He has been an exceptional athlete at every level. In a small town like this, all the attention that you get for being that good can sometimes ruin a kid by the time he gets to high school, but Mike is as hard working and humble as any coach could want.”
Those traits aren’t the product of his years at Claxton high, but rather a competitive attitude and willingness to be coached up that Peel has had since he first took to the football field.
“I remember coming in before school back in eighth grade to work with coach Cartwright,” said Peel. “I tried to get a good understanding of the offense and it’s something I’ve been working on every year.”
Though Peel was named the starter before his first game as a freshman, he hasn’t always been the focal point of the Tigers’ offense.
In his first two seasons, Claxton had plenty of size and depth along the offensive line and an All-Region performer at running back in Jamalcolm Morgan. Last season, with Morgan and much of the O-line departed, Cartwright opened up Peel and the passing game with pleasing results as the Tigers posted their third straight winning record in the regular season and came within a win of advancing to the Class-A state playoffs.
This year, Cartwright knows that he can depend on his offensive leader and has full faith in his decisions on the field.
“There is a tremendous amount of trust that we’ve built up,” said Cartwright. “Not only have I seen him perform in games, but Mike is a guy that is at all the practices, always on time, and always has his head in the right place. He’s at a spot where this coaching staff has total faith in him and will listen to his input about what he’s seeing during the game.”
As for his final chance to strap on his Claxton uniform, the soft-spoken Peel is quick to downplay his singular importance — crediting the rest of his fellow seniors for a group leadership effort. With the state playoffs just out of reach in each of his first three seasons, Peel insists that there isn’t any added pressure to get over the hump, but certainly sounds like a senior quarterback that knows he can lead his team to the next level.
“(Getting to the playoffs) isn’t something that I’m worried about or always talking about,” said Peel. “We know that we’re a good team and that we can win games. Last season, I think that we surprised some teams. This year, we can use that to build confidence in ourselves and keep winning.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.