Despite a loss in the region championship title game last week, the Dawson County Tigers are ready to start a new season this week in the first round of the state playoffs.
Moments after the 42-7 loss to the Greater Atlanta Christian Spartans, who have been ranked No. 1 in the state all year, Head Coach Sid Maxwell told his players he was proud of them.
"You are a good football team," Maxwell said at midfield. "It's a new season. It's 0-0 right now."
Though they were unable to defend their region title, Dawson County (7-2, 5-1 in 7-AAA) has earned a home playoff spot in this week's game against The Lovett School.
"My approach to them at the end of the game was that it's a new season. I didn't want to take that game and measure our other nine games we played. I think we are going to be very competitive," Maxwell said. "We ended up region runner-up. In two years these gentlemen have accomplished a lot at this stage of the game."
The team who has accomplished so much struggled to find answers for the Spartans' talent on both sides of the ball.
"GAC is an outstanding team that has D1 talent all over the field," said Offensive Coordinator Andy LeBlanc. "We knew it was going to be a huge test for us. I thought our kids played very hard and never gave up. That speaks to the character of the players. We battled for four full quarters."
The Tigers usually prove to be a threat on the ground and in the air behind quarterback Coey Watson.
During the Nov. 4 matchup, Watson was 9-for-21 for 54 yards and ran for 52.
He was the rushing leader for Dawson County, just one yard ahead of senior running back Taylor Cronan who had 7 carries for 51 yards.
Though the numbers were not what Dawson County is used to producing, there were not a lot of mistakes. There was a single turnover on a fumble.
"They've got some players," Maxwell said. "Things started unraveling a little bit and they started exploiting us a little bit. They just made plays. Our guys played hard the whole game, but they just have some young men that could go."
The Region 7-AAA runners up struggled to sustain drives from early on and the Spartans relied on the running of junior stand out Kyler McMichael and the arm of Stanford commit Davis Mills.
Mills passed for 320 yards, going 19-for-25. McMichael carried for 91 yards.
"The quarterback, he would go through his progressions, all the way from left to right and you don't see that in high school. We'd have it covered and then they'd make a double move over on the right and end up being open," Maxwell said.
Mills connected in the first quarter with Harrison Sloan for a 58-yard touchdown pass.
With 8:32 in the second quarter, the Spartans held a 21-0 lead.
Logan Barnes was able to pick Mills off after the Dawson County defense applied some pressure in the second.
The Tigers drove from the 36-yard line to get into field goal territory, but the Peyton Allen attempt from 30 yards out was no good and the Spartans took over on downs.
The defense again was able to pressure Mills on the next possession, but he got off a screen pass that would result in a 68-yard touchdown by McMichael.
"Rush wise, they just have a big offensive line. It's one of the teams we faced this year that make us look small. We are not small, but they made us look small. I would love to have the opportunity to be there again," Maxwell said.
Dawson headed to half down 28-0.
Dawson County began to slow things down in the second half of play.
The only touchdown for the Tigers came on a Payton Myers run at the end of the third quarter to make it 35-7.
"They really didn't take many people out," Maxwell said. "I slowed it down. I felt like we had a bigger game coming up this Friday.
"I never threw the towel in, but at the same time, we were running the normal offensive speed instead of warp speed like we do. I just wasn't going to risk the chance of injury, it just wasn't worth it. Strategy-wise, you just have to be careful," he said.
Several Tigers suffered injuries including a couple of twisted ankles, Ryan Glass who had a finger to the eye that will require repair to his tear duct and Kolton Brumbelow who had four stitches in the locker room and returned to the field.
"Our kids, guts and toughness, they've got that. They played hard," Maxwell said.
"We have an experienced team that has done a great job all season long focusing on the next game, win or lose. Our players know that we are in a new season with new opportunities. I don't anticipate any hangover from GAC. Our entire focus will go toward getting better each practice and beating Lovett on Friday," said LeBlanc.
The Lovett School is a good matchup for the Tigers, according to Maxwell.
The Lions senior quarterback, Brady Tindall, averages 146 yards through the air and another 135 yards on the ground per game-not unlike Watson.
"He's a lot like Coey, a good running quarterback. He's a solid quarterback," Maxwell said.
"They are a good football team. Might be one of our toughest draws in the first round, but that's just the way things unfolded but that's fine. We have got to beat them to keep playing," he said.
"Each time we play a game, the experience of the game gets us better," LeBlanc said. "Now that we are in the playoffs, we have to sharpen our focus even more. Lovett is a very good team, we will have to play a great game to beat them and we are very capable of that. That's what the playoffs are all about though. This is what we have been working toward since the spring."
The Tigers face The Lovett School at 7:30 p.m. Friday at home. If Dawson County wins, they will advance to play the winner of Islands and Crisp County.