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Thursday night clash
Statesboro hosts Liberty in region opener
091611 SHS FOOTBALL 03 web
Statesboro running back Quan Daniels rips off a run in the fourth quarter to help run out the clock and preserve a 17-14 victory over Liberty County at Womack Field in this Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, file photo.

 Liberty County (5-1) at No. 5 Statesboro (5-1)
7 p.m.
Womack Field
Radio: 102.9 FM

    The lights will come on one night early at Womack Field as Statesboro takes on Liberty County tonight in each team’s Region 3-AAAA opener.
    High school players will get the professional treatment as the game will be broadcast on WSAV, allowing viewers from all over southeast Georgia to watch the Blue Devils (5-1, No. 5 in Class AAAA) square off against the Panthers (5-1).
    The two teams have had their share of big games over the past two seasons. In 2010, Statesboro made the trip to Hinesville as the No. 10 team in Class AAAA, but was shocked by the winless Panthers in a 29-0 route. Last season, Liberty County came to Statesboro and again gave the Devils all they could handle before SHS escaped with a 17-14 victory.
    The stakes are even higher tonight as the winner will have the inside track to the sub-region title and a guaranteed spot in the state playoffs. With just four teams making up the sub-region, each school will play just three sub-region contests, meaning that every win or loss will be greatly magnified.
    “We’ve discussed that fact with our team,” said SHS coach Steve Pennington. “We’ve made it clear that there isn’t a whole lot of room for error. That’s why it’s important that we come into the game focused. We have to put aside all of the hype and the TV cameras and make sure that we execute physically, mentally and emotionally.”
    The Devils will try to draw first blood in the sub-region against a Liberty County squad that is enjoying one of its best starts in school history. The Panthers are 5-1 for just the second time in their 20 seasons of football and have also tied a school record with their current four game winning streak.
    Many figured that Liberty County’s offense would take a hit with the departure of Shadrach Thornton – now starring for N.C. State – but the Panthers have lit up opponents to the tune of 34 points per game.
    “You can’t replace a guy like (Thornton),” said Pennington. “But Liberty County has a good enough mix to give people trouble. They have enough size to run the power game and enough speed to go outside. They run a multiple offense and keep people guessing.”
    Statesboro wore down the Panthers with its power running game last season, but is still coping with a litany of bumps and bruises among its running backs. Quan Daniels and Sherrodric Rawls returned to the lineup last week, but both also limped off the field at times.
    Facing a Panthers defense that has developed a reputation for forcing turnovers and handing its offense good field position, the Devils will need to find a game plan that can keep the ball safe as they march down the field.
    “This game will be a tremendous challenge for our offensive line,” said Pennington. “We have a number of guys that can run the ball, but we need to create holes to run through. Liberty has a very good defensive front that will challenge us all night.”
    As for the televised game and the short week, Pennington was unconcerned. The Devils went through their normal routine during practices from Monday through Wednesday. The only thing Statesboro has omitted is the usual Thursday walkthrough.
    If anything, Pennington is excited that the unique nature of the game will bring a larger crowd as Statesboro sometimes sees a dip in attendance for home games coming right before the school’s fall break.
    “We’re hoping to get a big crowd for this one,” said Pennington. “It’s an exciting opportunity and I think it’s great that our guys get to play in front of the cameras. But this game is also big because of our opponent and what we want to accomplish. That’s what we’ll be thinking about when we take the field.”

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