The decline wasn’t sharp, and it didn’t last long.
No, Westside’s fall from the ranks of elite football programs in Middle Georgia spanned just three seasons, and the descent might have had more to do with the return of Peach County as a power.
Despite the absence at the top being short-lived, coaches and players are excited about the Seminoles’ return as contenders.
“We worked very hard to get back to this point,” Westside quarterback Noah Grayer said after the Seminoles’ recent win over Mary Persons. “We still have games left. But we worked hard to be ready for this season.”
Westside (5-1, 3-0 GHSA Region 2-AAAA) travels to Milledgeville on Friday to play Baldwin in a game that will most likely decide the region champion.
“We take every one game by game, because we play a good Perry team next week, and we’ll have two Bibb County rivalry games to close the season,” Westside head coach Sheddrick Risper said. “So no matter what happens with Baldwin, we’ll still have three games to go. But this is a huge game.”
Westside had big games the past two seasons, but those games were to determine playoff spots, not region championships.
After back-to-back appearances in the quarterfinals, the Seminoles fell to 8-3 in 2010. They lost by 35 points to both Baldwin and Peach County and had to collect wins over Mary Persons and Perry in their final two games to make it to the playoffs, where they lost on the road to Eastside in the first round.
The Seminoles were plagued by youth and inexperience in 2011, losing three of their first five games. They lost to Mary Persons and Perry in the final two weeks by a combined seven points, finishing with the first non-winning record in school history and missing the playoffs.
“The positive I saw last year is that we had the talent,” Risper said. “They were just young, and nothing makes up for inexperience on Friday nights. But our effort was there every week. From the first quarter to the fourth quarter of every game, we didn’t see a drop off in effort. We were very consistent.”
Risper said the day after the Perry loss to end the season -- he called the defeat “gutwrenching” -- players came to him ready to turn the page and prepare for this season. Rising seniors like Grayer, Shannon Smith, Jalen Lawrence and Brian Whitaker took responsibility for the offseason workouts and handled the preparation for the Seminoles’ rebound in 2012.
Grayer is often the first player to walk through the doors of the fieldhouse before practice. As the quarterback, Grayer’s attitude and dedication can rub off on his teammates, and Risper said that’s true of many of the seniors.
Risper said he could see the desire and effort his players exhibited during the offseason. He thought the offseason program and the still-fresh 2011 battle wounds prepared the Seminoles for an improvement in 2012.
“It’s one of those things were you just can’t point to one thing that led to a turnaround,” Risper said. “You could just feel it in the air. After coaching for a long time, you can just feel it.”
He discovered the veracity of the progress during the Seminoles’ preseason scrimmage against Northeast. His team had talent, but it also had the poise and execution that might have lacked on an inexperienced team.
While the players and coaches had higher expectations, the rest of Middle Georgia discovered the progress pretty quickly.
The Seminoles put up a school-record 69 points on Central to open the season and backed it up with a 41-0 shutout of Dougherty. Their best effort, however, probably came in a 24-point loss against Northside. They scored 18 points against the Eagles’ first-team defense and moved the ball regularly against the top-ranked team in Class AAAAA.
Westside followed the Northside loss with region wins over Veterans, West Laurens and Mary Persons, all teams in the mix for playoff spots in Region 2-AAAA.
“Any time you’re 5-1, that’s an accomplishment,” Risper said. “Of course the season is not over, and the kids aren’t satisfied, and that’s a good thing. High school kids can tend to get complacent. These guys can’t get enough of winning, and we make sure they stay humble. We know we can get better each week. We’re not where we can be.”