With less than two weeks before the 2011 regular season kicks off, a familiar situation is forming in the Region 3-A football landscape.
In each of the last four seasons, a team from the region has played for the Class A state title, and with more programs on the upswing this season, battles for the region’s four state playoff spots are sure to be as fierce as ever.
Region alignment in the last four seasons has also led to the increased competitiveness among Region 3-A schools as eight of the 13 teams will enter the final week of the season with a chance at making the state playoffs.
“It’s a big race to the finish,” said Claxton coach Allen Cartwright. “There are so many quality teams. A loss in any week could end up being the difference between a region championship, or sliding down to a third or fourth spot… It could mean missing out on the playoffs altogether.”
That sentiment rang true for many Bulloch area teams — which comprise about half of the region’s members — last season. One more win would have put Portal in one of the four play-in spots while Jenkins County could have done the same with another win and some help. Metter missed out on a shot at the play-in round in the last week as rival Claxton secured the East Division’s final play-in spot, but Claxton came up just short of the state tournament for the third straight season.
Even the top teams in the region have felt the shift as more schools have stepped up their game. Emanuel County Institute – which won a state title in 2007 and was runner-up in 2008 – lost multiple regular season games for the first time since 2005 last season and Savannah Christian lost a region game for the first time since dropping to Class A in 2008.
Last year’s playoff teams remain strong in 2011, but there are a host of up-and-coming programs itching for their chance to make a mark all over the region.
Portal does more with less
On paper, the Portal Panthers could easily be an afterthought. With a roster hovering around 35 players, Portal will have to face teams with double their depth on a routine basis.
Also working against the Panthers is another change at the head coaching position as David NeSmith takes over as their third leader in as many seasons.
But NeSmith is quick to dismiss anything that can be considered an excuse for Portal’s shortcomings. Instead, he has spent the summer making it clear to his team that, though outmanned, they have the talent to compete.
“There’s no hiding it. We don’t have a lot of guys,” said NeSmith. “That’s not something we can dwell on. We have some seniors that need to step up and be leaders and make an impact on both sides of the ball.”
Headlining for the Panthers on offense will be seniors Hunter Oglesby and Corey Walker. Both have seen time as quarterback and running back in Portal’s various offensive schemes in their four years, but in NeSmith’s wishbone attack, Oglesby will call the signals while Walker figures to be the main ball carrier.
Defensively, things start up front for Portal with Denzell Washington and Joe Lockley. Even as Portal has stumbled in the last few seasons, solid defense has been a mainstay – a tradition that the pair of seniors will have to uphold to keep the Panthers in the region mix.
Claxton looking for one more win
For three straight seasons, Claxton has been at the front of the line for the party that is the GHSA state playoffs, but in each instance, the Tigers have been left on the wrong side of the velvet rope.
This season, Michael Peel — now in his fourth year as starting quarterback — will try to get his team over that final hurdle.
“It’s not that there’s more pressure this year,” said Peel. “But it’s something we know we can do. We’ve beaten good teams. We just have to follow through.”
Most impressive in the last few seasons has been the enormous change in the Tigers’ game plan. As a freshman, Peel mainly handed the ball off to a strong stable of running backs with a huge offensive line. Now, the line is a bit smaller, but Peel has receiving weapons in LeBron Glover and Shavez Mincey to distribute the ball to and create big plays.
“We’ve had to adapt,” said Cartwright. “All of our seniors have done a great job in doing that these last few years. Now they’re a group of guys that know how to win and that expect to.”
Metter looking like its old self
It wasn’t too long ago that things were at their bleakest for Metter.
The Tigers advanced to the state quarterfinals in 2003, but then stumbled to just a 14-46 record over the next six seasons.
Last year, Mike West took the helm and got immediate results in his first season. Metter reached the .500 mark for just the second time since the 2003 playoff run and was able to do so despite losing star quarterback Pete Nagel early in the season.
In 2011, questions remain as offensive threats Nagel and Dean Eason and defensive force Devin Dekle are gone, but West has three seniors returning to the offensive line and Keigan Williams and Noe Vecendes running the defensive side of the ball.
“We proved a lot to ourselves last year,” said West. “I hope that translates into this season, but we’ve still got to be ready. Every week is a battle in this region.”
ECI still a force
Even with those two regular season losses in 2010, Emanuel County Institute still proved that it is among the elite in Class-A
The Bulldogs made it to at least the quarterfinal round for the fourth consecutive season and — with a combined record of 59-7 dating back to 2006 — are in the middle of one of the most impressive dynasties anywhere in the state. Still, the strengthening of the rest of Region 3-A showed as ECI didn’t win its division and had to enter the state playoffs as a No. 2 seed.
This season, the wins should keep rolling in for the Bulldogs. Caleb Pressey returns for his second season under center and top running back Wezley Ealey (1,136 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010) remains firmly entrenched in the ECI backfield as an All-Region frontrunner. Buck Moody joins Ealey as another talented runner with 1,000-plus yard potential, promising another long season for opposing defenses.
Savannah Christian trying to stay on top
While ECI has the gaudiest record in Region 3-A, Savannah Christian has been the best in the postseason recently. In each of the past two seasons, the Raiders have advanced to the Class-A state championship game – coming up just short on both occasions.
“The last couple of seasons have been special,” said Raiders coach Donald Chumley. “I think this year’s team can be good as well, but it’s a lot harder to stay on top than it is to get there. We know that we’re going to get everyone’s best shot.”
Savannah Christian was hurt by the departure of a talented senior class, but will still have plenty to rely on in 2011.
Will Austin, who led the Raiders in rushing last year, returns to his A-back position in the triple-option attack. Austin will be counted on to be a steady presence as quarterback Jonathan Chamblee and fullback Chris Johnston adjust to starting for the first time.
Defensively, Savannah Christian takes a hit as its top two tacklers are gone. Nose tackle DeAngelo Brown will have the eyes of several college recruiters and will try to dominate the line of scrimmage to lessen the burden of his less experienced teammates.
Bryan County trying to find spark
In a region with so many teams taking big strides forward, things can get even tougher on a school that is even a fraction behind the learning curve.
Last season, Bryan County went in a new direction, bringing in Mark Wilson as head coach and installing a brand new spread offense.
Having already spent the previous years near the bottom of the standings, the 2010 Redskins were caught in a bad situation and slumped to an 0-10 mark as many teams took advantage of Bryan County’s attempt to change things up.
With last season’s contenders all having solid numbers of returning starters, the Redskins will have their work cut out for them once again. The schedule makers didn’t make things any easier as three of Bryan County’s five region games are away from the comfy confines of Pembroke and all three of those road tilts come against region play-in game participants from last season.
Jenkins County coming together
The 2011 football season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Jenkins County this spring when, shortly after being named the Eagles’ new head coach, Chris Mason suffered a stroke. Thankfully, Mason is doing well and rejoining the team and JCHS can finally get down to business.
Similar to their West Division rivals in Portal, the Eagles have had to make do with a small roster size in recent years. This season, 40 players will be suited up in blue and white, but numbers aren’t everything.
“There isn’t a whole lot of Friday night experience on the team right now,” said interim coach Charlie Waters. “We may have 40 guys, but a lot of people will have to play both ways until we can get more experience for some of the younger players.”
For teams that have many players seeing time on both sides of the ball, injuries can be twice as damaging.
“Health is something that hurt us last season,” said Waters. “I think that this team has a lot of potential, but a big part in achieving that potential is staying healthy.”
Jenkins County lacks the firepower of last year’s Region 3-A playoff teams, but does have an advantage in its schedule. The Eagles face Bryan County — which accounted for one of their two wins in 2010 —with a chance to build momentum early in the season and also get three consecutive home region games, two of which come against teams that didn’t make the play-in round last season.
GHSA Region 3-A Final Standings, 2010
Team Region All
Johnson County 6-0 11-1
Emanuel County Institute 5-1 10-3
Montgomery County 4-2 5-5
Treutlen 2-4 3-7
Portal 2-4 3-7
Wheeler County 2-4 3-7
Jenkins County 0-6 2-8
Team Region All
Savannah Christian 4-1 13-2
Calvary Day 4-1 8-3
Savannah Country Day 3-2 6-4
Claxton 3-2 5-5
Metter 1-4 5-5
Bryan County 0-5 0-10