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Jackets look to pick up where they left off

    BROOKLET — As fall practices begin throughout the state, few schools carry over as much momentum as the Yellow Jackets of Southeast Bulloch.
    Deep playoff runs and region championships are notches that have yet to be put in the Jackets’ belt, but the program has been on a steady rise over the past four seasons. Last year marked SEB’s first trip to the postseason since 2003 and both hopes and expectations remain high as they try to improve on the progress of 2013 this season.   
    Now sporting a roster approaching 80 players — nearly triple the number of Jackets on the squads from just five seasons ago — Southeast Bulloch has quickly gone from Class AA also-ran to Class AAA contender.
    “We’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished, but we don’t let that get in the way of our expectations for this year,” SEB coach Pat Collins said. “So far, we like what we’ve seen. There has been great participation in the weight room and with conditioning over the summer as we’ve continued to grow.”
    As the Jackets prepare for their first full contact practice next week, much of the focus will be on replacing the majority of the offensive line and a pair of running backs — all now graduated — that provided plenty of points and ball control last fall.
    Running back Tyler Epps finished last season just shy of 2,000 rushing yards with fellow back Antonio McMillan providing an extra kick of speed in front of an offensive line with four three-year starters.
    Whether or not this year’s Jackets can match the muscle and efficiency of last season remains to be seen. Reserves from 2013 have been hitting the weights to prepare for SEB’s bruising Wing-T rushing attack, but Collins maintained that he is aiming for flexibility on both sides of the ball — tweaking game plans to best match the strengths of whoever fills the starting roles on opening night.
    “Just because some guys have left doesn’t mean that we change our expectations for success,” Collins said. “A lot of the names and faces might be new to fans this year, but these are guys who have worked their way up through the ranks and are ready to earn their spot.”
    That attitude and sense of determination is exactly what Collins and his staff were aiming for when they arrived in Brooklet in 2010.
    Now that everyone in Blue and Gold is familiar with the systems that are in place from the first day of middle school ball through Friday nights with the varsity squad, things are streamlined and the Jackets are moving forward in lockstep.
    “The guys that will be playing for us know what we expect of them,” Collins said. “They’ve put in the hard work. Guys just coming up from middle school might be behind them, but that’s part of how the system works. They know that our older guys were once in their shoes and so they know the steps that have to be followed to grow and succeed.”
    While the Jackets remain in Region 1-AAA this season, the schedule will look a bit different.
    The region is now split into two sub-regions, with SEB joining Savannah, Johnson, Beach, Islands and Jenkins. Former rival Pierce County will host SEB in the season opener Aug. 29, but Pierce is now on the other side of 1-AAA and the game won’t count toward final region standings.
    In the end, a return trip to the postseason could come down to Nov. 7 when the Jackets will play a crossover game in a region playoff.

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.