SYLVANIA —For the last few years, Region 3-AA has consistently fielded six or seven football teams that have the talent to make it to the state playoffs. Unfortunately, only four schools can advance out of the region each season.
Screven County has consistently found itself right in the mix, but has also come up on the short end frequently as the Gamecocks have been to the postseason just once in the past six years, but have also been within one win of the region’s fourth-place finisher in four of the other five seasons.
Last season, Greg Manior came to town from South Effingham to lead the Gamecocks and showed promise, but after hanging around the middle of the region standings for much of the season, a brutal end to Screven’s schedule sent the Gamecocks to three straight losses to end the season and a 3-7 record that left them on the outside looking in once more.
Now in his second season, Manior is confident that another year of experience will help his team climb the mountain that is Screven’s region schedule.
“I think that we took some big steps forward,” said Mainor at the beginning of fall practice in early August. “We had a very good summer workout program with good attendance from our kids.”
This season, Screven will divert from last year’s wing-T offense and go with a more diverse multiple look that can strike in many different ways — a tactic that was reflected in summer workout sessions.
“We wanted a balanced routine for workouts and conditioning,” said Manior. “It isn’t all about being the most powerful or being the fastest. You have to find a balance between the two to really reach your potential out on the field.”
As hard as the Gamecocks hit their summer workout sessions, fall camp has been even more taxing — and one of the more creative.
With temperatures skyrocketing throughout the state this summer, Screven has found a way to beat the heat without cutting down on important practice time. With Screven County schools not opening until last week, the Gamecocks were free in the morning during the first week where contact drills are allowed by the GHSA. Manior jumped on the opportunity, initiating 6:30 a.m. practices and making the school gym available for players to sleep over the night before.
“I realize that it’s pretty early for practice,” said Manior. “By sleeping in the gym, we can make sure that everyone is at the practice field on time. Spending all that time with their teammates is also good for everyone to form that team mentality.”
Leading that team on Friday nights will be Aikeem Mingle who, despite being a junior, has more varsity experience than any other Gamecock. Mingle took over as quarterback midway through his freshman season and has been Screven’s field general ever since.
“I think I’ve improved a lot since my first year,” said Mingle. “I spend a lot of time working on reading defenses and I think I see the field better now. I want to be a good leader to my teammates and want to lead by example on the field.”
Fullback Jeremy Johnson will also help on offense as Screven’s leading rusher in 2010 returns for this season, but the new-look attack will also open up new options.
“I’ve been trying to get better with my passing,” said Mingle. “I’m excited to throw the ball more, but I know that I need to be accurate when I do.”
Defensively, consistency will be key if the Gamecocks want to improve.
Screven recorded a pair of shutouts last season — tied for second most in Region 3-AA — but allowed an average of 35 points per game in its losses.
“We need to improve,” said Manior. “We know that there isn’t a lot of time before the season starts. We’re under fire. We’ve got some very good defensive backs and good senior leadership. They’ve been close these last few years. They know what it is going to take to get to that next level.”
With a third-year quarterback and returning starters along both lines and in many key positions, the Gamecocks figure to be a more talented squad this season, but must still run the Region 3-A gauntlet.
Two non-region games will allow Screven to ease into the regular season, but will also be a barometer as the Gamecocks travel to Class AAAA Effingham County before hosting 2010 state quarterfinalist Tattnall County.
Screven’s region schedule sets up as neutral as possible, with home and away games alternating through the entire season and an even home/road split for games against last season’s playoff qualifiers.
The postseason picture will likely stay blurry until the final weeks again and Screven will have to stay tough through its entire run as the Gamecocks have to face perennial contenders Laney and Swainsboro in two of the final three weeks of the season.
Screven County Gamecocks
Head Coach: Greg Manior (2nd season, 3-7)
2010 Record: 3-7 (3-5, Region 3-AA)
Postseason: None. Finished 5th in Region 3-AA
Top Prospect: Akeem Mingle, QB
Key losses: Duane Heindel, LB; Rodderick Grace, RB
Circle the Calendar: Sept. 2 vs. Tattnall; Sept. 30, vs. Dublin; Oct. 28 at Swainsboro
Effingham Co. L 14-48
Tattnall Co. L 14-47
Jefferson Co. L 21-37
Southeast Bulloch W 31-0
East Laurens W 14-0
Dublin L 7-28
Bleckley Co. W 36-27
Laney L 0-39
Swainsboro L 0-37
Dodge Co. L 22-29
8/26 — @ Effingham County
9/2 — Tattnall County
9/9 — @ Jefferson County
9/16 — Southeast Bulloch
9/23 — @ East Laurens
9/30 — Dublin
10/7 — @ Bleckley County
10/21 — Laney
10/28 — @ Swainsboro
11/4 — Dodge County
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.