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Playoffs or bust for schools surrounding Bulloch County

    Football programs in the counties surrounding Bulloch have seen varying degrees of success over the past few years, but all seem primed to make a run towards the postseason in 2014.
    Of course, with many area schools competing in the same regions, the success of one team could spell the doom of another.
    Nowhere is this more apparent than in the always-competitive Region 3-A. In addition to Bulloch County’s Portal High, the region also is home to Claxton, Emanuel County Institute and Jenkins County.
    Claxton enters the fall looking to build on last year’s state playoff appearance — the school’s first since 2007. The Tigers will be led by first-year head coach — but long-time defensive coordinator — Roderick Williams.
    Williams will have plenty to work with as last season’s Region Offensive Player of the Year Cornelius Taylor returns under center and will have a wealth of talented teammates playing both ways for the Tigers’ small-but-talented squad.
    “Our guys take a lot of pride in the work they’ve put in,” Williams said. “These guys that got us to the playoffs last season have raised the bar. We don’t want to let up now.”
    Up the road in Twin City, playoff success has become the norm for Emanuel County Institute as the Bulldogs have reached the postseason in each of the last 13 years – winning a pair of state titles along the way.
    Last season saw ECI struggle to a 6-5 finish and first-round playoff exit, but the Bulldogs return key starters who should grow from an additional year of experience. 
    The Bulldogs should play well in their sub-region, but will ultimately have to please the ratings system that now determines participants in the Class A state playoffs.
    Jenkins County fell just short in those ratings two years ago and missed out on the postseason despite its best record in a decade. Hopes were high that the Eagles could improve in 2013, but the wheels flew off, resulting in a 1-9 mark.
    Hoping to turn things around is Charley Waters, who returns to JCHS after previously serving as an assistant at the school
    The Eagles boast All-American talent in OL/DL Saquan Reese and will look to improve their offensive output as they transition from a spread look into a flexbone triple-option attack.
    In Candler County, Metter faces the same challenge as the fellow Tigers in Claxton.
    Mike West took over a struggling Metter program in 2010 and made immediate improvements, culminating with a trip to the state playoffs last season.
    That’s where the dream ended as the Tigers bowed out to top-ranked Lamer County, but this year’s squad is hopeful that the success will continue.
“We felt like we had a lot to be proud of last year,” West said. “Getting to the playoffs was a big step. We drew a tough team in the playoffs, but I think that gives out players something to draw on. We’ve used that game as motivation throughout the summer to help prepare for this season.”
    Holes will have to be filled on what was a very strong defensive front last season. The likely candidates to take those spots — given Metter’s small roster size — come from the offensive side of the ball, which returns 10 starters from last season.
    If Metter is to return to the postseason, it will have to take a much different route.
    While still in Class AA, region realignments have given the Tigers a very different slate of opponents this fall.
    Highly ranked teams such as Benedictine and Vidalia won’t be missed by the Tigers, but are replaced by similar tough-out in Jefferson County and Dublin.
    The Tigers’ final game of the season may determine the playoff fate of more than just one local team as new region rival Screven County will host Metter in the finale.
    The Gamecocks made the playoffs for a second consecutive season last fall, but couldn’t recapture the magic of their 2012 region championship squad and were bounced in the first round.
    Players that made up the core of those postseason runs are largely gone, but Screven still boasts plenty of athletic threats like WR/DB Donta Wilburn and are likely to be in the playoff hunt once again.

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