TWIN CITY — For the Bulldogs of Emanuel County Institute, the state playoffs may be upon them, but it’s business as usual.
ECI will begin its state playoff run at home for the eighth time in the last 11 years tonight as the Bulldogs host Miller County in what is technically the second round of the GSHA Class A Public state playoffs.
In previous seasons, a statewide power poll has determined the top 16 teams and a traditional playoff has ensued. This year, the format expanded to include 24 teams, with 16 schools playing last week for the right to advance to this week’s round — to which the top eight seeds were awarded byes.
ECI was one of those eight teams that was able to spend last Friday night at home. The Bulldogs cruised to a 9-0 record in the regular season and were only deprived of a Region 3-A title due to Hurricane Matthew wreaking havoc on the schedule and denying ECI and Calvary Day the opportunity to play for the outright region championship.
Regardless of a region title, the Bulldogs secured the No. 4 overall seed in the state playoff and now host No. 13 Miller County, which had to fight to the final whistle in order to defeat 20th-seeded Bowdon in last week’s opening round of state competition.
The Bulldogs seem to have built on all of the positives achieved during the 2015 season. Last year, ECI dropped its season opener before ripping off 11 consecutive wins, only falling to Irwin County in the state semifinals.
Armed with a huge group of returning starters, the Bulldogs have made all the improvements that they could have hoped for. ECI started the season with a 38-21 victory over Metter, and that win still stands as the Bulldogs’ closest call of the season.
ECI has allowed an opponent to crack double-digits just once since Sept. 16 and the Bulldogs are winning games by an average score of 51-11. As dominant as that is, the Bulldogs have only been getting stronger, pressing that average win to a count of 49-5 since Sept. 30.
Anchoring the Bulldogs’ explosive offense is quarterback Rhett Gay. The Bulldogs have built their decade-long dynasty on a powerful running game and are potent again this season, but Gay’s efficiency through the air is the reason that ECI is one of the favorites to take home the state championship.
Gay is completing an incredibly efficient 72.4 percent of his passes and had thrown for 26 touchdowns to just a single interception while amassing 1,822 yards on the strength of his right arm.
The Bulldogs enter tonight with homefield advantage and with an edge on paper, but will also have the benefit of an extra week of rest.
ECI — like the rest of Region 3-A — saw its entire season thrown into flux when Hurricane Matthew barged through in early October. A few elongated breaks and some unplanned Thursday games kept the Bulldogs on their toes, but they answered the bell in all nine of their games.
For their efforts, the Bulldogs were one of eight Class A public school teams that were granted a free pass through last week's play-in rounds. Armed with the same talent that has been on display throughout the season and an extra week of rest, ECI figures to be a favorite to still be standing when the state championships shift to the Georgia Dome just before Christmas.
ECI is in search of its fourth overall state title and its third since the 2007 season.