The naysayers must be getting pretty tired of the Statesboro Blue Devils.
A young and inexperienced team heading into the season, the Devils have shaken off the critics and battled through adversity. Now, Statesboro finds itself in the GHSA quarterfinals, just a few wins away from another state championship.
Although the Devils are a perennial power in Class AAAA, this year has seen them go about their business much differently than some of their contemporaries.
Other favorites such as Northside Warner Robins, Tucker and Starr’s Mill bowled through the regular season, notching blowout after blowout, but Statesboro kept plodding along and racking up victories – if not style points – to earn its place in the postseason.
It came as no surprise that the Devils secured a spot in the state tournament, but since that playoff-clinching win over Greenbrier in October they have been fighting an uphill battle.
First came the Region 2-AAAA championship game, which sent Statesboro down to Brunswick. The Devils had defeated the Pirates on the road in the season opener, but many picked Brunswick to secure its third-straight region title. The Pirates almost proved them right, driving within inches of a game-winning score at the end of regulation, but Statesboro had the stronger will and clinched the region title in overtime.
Next up came the Devils’ biggest test of the season in a game that served notice as to the heart and desire of the team.
In the opening round of the state playoffs, Tri-Cities jumped out to a 21-7 lead and still held the advantage with just 16 minutes left to play. Determined to protect its home field, Statesboro rallied for two late touchdowns and forced a turnover to set up the game-winning field goal.
Last week — though still at home — the Devils were considered to be sizeable underdogs against a Griffin team that had lost just once all season and that had been to the state semifinals in 2009.
Perhaps finally fed up with all the doubting, Statesboro came out with guns blazing and built a 27-7 halftime lead. SHS pushed it to 34-7 and although Griffin proved its talent by rallying hard in the fourth quarter, forced two turnovers in the final two minutes to advance to this week’s quarterfinals.
So that brings us to this week where, once again, there are a lot of reasons why Statesboro is viewed as an underdog.
Kell is undefeated on the season and has spent all of 2010 steadily climbing the state polls while Statesboro has been unranked since an early loss to Liberty County. Kell has used a high-powered offense to pummel five opponents by at least 20 points while the Devils have had to gut out close wins through much of the season. Most importantly, Kell won last week’s coin toss for home field advantage, meaning that the Longhorns get to play in front of a big, friendly crowd while Statesboro must embark on a long road trip before Thanksgiving dinner has fully digested.
All of these things should matter, but with this group of Blue Devils, it should be obvious that nothing could be further from the truth.
Statesboro has faced teams with better offenses, teams with better defenses, teams with more speed, and teams with a bigger bag of tricks — and none of them has slowed down the Devils.
The 2010 Blue Devils are a classic example of a team whose sum is greater than the whole of its parts.
When Dequan Daniels and the running backs can’t power the ball forward on the ground, Reid Pennington is finding a way through the air.
When an opposing defense is making its move, Branden Williams and Justin Spells are stuffing the run, with Haydon Rollins and the SHS secondary pulling down big interceptions.
When the game comes down to a decisive kick, Caleb Brown has proven that he has the nerve to put one through the uprights.
This squad is a team by every definition. They win and lose — but mostly win — as one.
So, to the Longhorns, who have every right to feel good about themselves right now; beware. Statesboro is making a living out of winning the games they shouldn’t win and are proving week by week that the sum of its effort is greater than the individual talents of whoever is in its way.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.