By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
The road to Friday night
Placeholder Image
Before David Cone led Statesboro High to a State Championship, or Michael Cooper dazzled crowds at Screven County, or Ron Flott Jr., took snaps at Southeast Bulloch, they all played middle school football in the Coastal Middle School Athletic Region.

The CMSA was formed with schools from Bulloch, Screven, Burke and Effingham counties in the hopes of creating a feeder system for athletics into area high schools.

Kevin Judy, principal of Mattie Lively Elementary in Statesboro, was instrumental in shaping what is now a thriving system.

“When we looked at some of the athletic powerhouses throughout Georgia, places like Valdosta and Washington County, they all had feeder systems,” said Judy. “We figured it would be a good way to help create success at the high school level, and we think it has.”

Around 1989, a middle school athletic region was formed with Effingham County, Burke County, Screven County and Williams James middle schools participating in five sports. Schools from the Hinesville area and Liberty County areas were added a couple of years later. By 1996, that region disbanded, and a new region was formed. Today, nine teams participate in the CMSA, with Ebenezer Middle joining as the ninth and final school in 2001.

“We wanted a program in which kids could go straight from the classroom onto the field in a supervised program,” said Paul Webb, who became the area’s first middle school Athletic Director. Webb described the challenges area schools faced during the program’s beginning.

“Funding was the biggest problem,” said Webb. “But we had tremendous help from the (Statesboro High) Booster Club, and Bulloch County Parks and Recreation was huge in helping with equipment issues. Then we had to find coaches, and luckily it was at about that time that Georgia Southern (University) began its coaching program, and that was a big help as well.”

Of the five original sports that were begun at the region’s birth, football has perhaps become the biggest to make its mark.

Area teams like Screven County Middle, Southeast Bulloch Middle, Williams James Middle and Langston Chapel Middle play a vital part in the development of the finished product fans see on Friday nights.

“The bottom line…they are the lifeblood of our program,” said Statesboro High head coach Steve Pennington. “Very seldom do we get players to play for us who have not come up through the middle school program. It creates a foundation of teamwork and pride, and develops an opportunity to teach technique and fundamentals.”

WJMS and LCMS both feed into the SHS program. Jonathan Leonard is in his first year as head coach of the Blue Devils of Langston Chapel.

“It’s definitely a lot of fun,” said Leonard. “A bunch of these kids had never even played football when they got here, and now they’re in starting roles. We’ve started an after school weightlifting program, and are still trying to get more kids to join the team.”

Tony Natson, athletic director at William James, says football at the middle school level is competitive.

“We do want to win,” said Natson, whose team is the defending CMSA region champions. “But I also think the kids take great pride in winning. If they play at this level they know what to expect when they get to the high school level.”

Getting to the high school level is something the coaches are thrilled to see.

“It’s pretty neat,” said David Durst, coach of the Screven County Middle team. “You never know who’s going to play on Friday nights, and that’s what we tell the kids. We don’t cut anybody and we explain to the kids that everybody develops at different times, and you just never know. A kid who wasn’t quite ready in middle school may be a starter in high school.”

Teams carry anywhere from 45-70 players, as enrollment cycles go up and down. They learn the same defensive and offensive schemes that they’ll be running in high school, giving them a leg up when it finally comes time to play Friday night.

At Screven, high school head coach Pat Collins gives Durst an 80-page playbook, of which Durst usually runs about 20 plays. The middle school team at SEB runs the same Wing-t attack that Mike Ward runs on Friday night.

The current sophomore class at SEBHS won a middle school region title two years ago as eighth graders. Coached by Roger Inman, the Yellow Jackets use the advantage of school proximity to build their program.

“It’s a good system,” said SEB coach Ward. “I’ve had one son go through it, one son in it right now, and another that will eventually go through it. I think it’s more of a developmental process, but they definitely put a big emphasis on winning.”

The middle school Jackets use the same weight facility as the high schoolers, and spend time in between school and practice getting help with homework.

“It’s big time excitement,” said SEBMS coach Roger Inman. “I take a lot of pride in seeing them play on Friday nights.”

The football teams play a six game schedule over a seven week period, culminating with a four team playoff on Oct. 25 and a championship game on the first of November.

Chad Bishop can be reached at (912)-489-9404.