Sports

Middle Georgia powerhouses have holes to fill

Conrad Nix doesn’t look at the number of starters he or any other team has returning.

What the Northside head coach does look at, however, is the caliber of players who have departed or are returning.

This year, the coach who has led the Eagles to two state championships since 2005 looks at his roster and notices the names of the graduated.

Abry Jones. Eric Fields. Darius Ivey. K.J. Morton. Xavier Bacon. Joe Scott.

They were the state defensive player of the year and elite national recruit (Jones), two All-Middle Georgia linebackers, an All-Middle Georgia and all-state honorable mention cornerback, a 1,600-yard running back and a starting quarterback with around 20 career starts.

“I wouldn’t mind having some of those guys back,” Nix said. “There’s no doubt we’re going to have some different faces out there this year.”

Northside is one of several proud Middle Georgia programs rebuilding this season. And even though some teams don’t need to come up with wholesale changes, there are scores of standout individual players who must be replaced. Of the 31 players who were named to the 2008 Georgia Sports Writers All-State team, only nine are returning this season. And of those nine, six are GHSA Class A players.

NOT USED TO REBUILDING

After consecutive 6-5 seasons near the start of his second run at Northside, Nix has led the Eagles to 11 straight 10-win seasons. Northside has averaged 12 wins per year since 1998, and it has played for four state championships, winning it all in 2006 and 2007. The record since 1998 is 133-14.

The coaches, fans and players have not really dealt with tough transitional seasons. Even in the years when the Eagles graduated extremely talented players, enough standouts were around to bridge the gap alongside talented up-and-coming players.

The losses this year might be the biggest in recent memory.

“In reality we might be (rebuilding),” Nix said. “But we don’t talk about it.”

The Eagles will start a quarterback who has attempted one pass, a running back who had 10 carries last year and an inexperienced group of receivers. The losses are even tougher on defense, where five All-Middle Georgia players have moved on.

“You hope that (the players projected to start this year) are competing in practice and learning from the guys in front of them,” Nix said. “Now they have their opportunity to step up.”

Following the loss to Statesboro in the 2005 Class AAAA championship game, the Eagles had some glaring weaknesses. They had to replace Byron Hunter, an 1,800-yard running back, and David Everett, who rushed for 922 yards and had a combined 35 rushing touchdowns. The starting quarterback, Jacobi Rodriguez, was being moved to receiver to make way for a little-known player named Marques Ivory.

Ivory went on to be a two-time all-state quarterback and one of the most accomplished in Middle Georgia history. Tijuan Green rushed for more than 3,000 yards during the next two seasons, and Deonta Jordan took over as the defensive playmaker.

“They really don’t stay down,” Warner Robins head coach Bryan Way said. “They’ve got great coaching and a lot of players.”

Because of the consistent ability to bounce back like they did following the loss to Statesboro, most fans continue to expect the same winning tradition the Eagles have delivered during the past decade. But so do the coaches and players.

“We don’t do anything differently this year than we would any other year,” Nix said. “It’s the same routine.”

Tattnall Square faces a similar situation. The Trojans had to replace their quarterback, running back, top defensive player and 12 other starters from a team that was upset by Deerfield-Windsor in the GISA Class AAA semifinals.

Adding to the rebuilding effort, Tattnall didn’t know if The Telegraph’s 2008 GISA Player of the Year, DeAndre Smelter, would return for his senior year as of two weeks before the start of the season. An elite national baseball prospect, Smelter was waiting until after two national all-star games in August to decide on football.

Prior to last season, the Trojans won 10 AAA championships in 20 years, becoming the most accomplished program in GISA history. But now, Tattnall must find a complete new set of playmakers.

“It’s bad when our only two offensive starters returning are wide receivers,” head coach Barney Hester said. “We don’t exactly throw the ball a whole lot.”

Hester is perceived as one of the best coaches in the league, and the Trojans are never short on talent, so a down year might not be in the works quite yet.

“We’ve certainly got some question marks,” Hester said. “But our goals are always the same.”

DON’T MINCE WORDS

Dublin head coach Roger Holmes doesn’t mind using the word “rebuilding.”

“There is no other way to say it,” said Holmes, who returns four starters total. “There is no getting around it. We are in a rebuilding year. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but we’re rebuilding.”

The Irish must replace one of the greatest players in school history, Rashard Smith. Smith, who signed with N.C. State, is a two-time Georgia Sports Writers Class AA Defensive Player of the Year, a GACA AA Offensive Player of the Year and the Sports Writers AA Basketball Player of the Year. He accounted for nearly all of Dublin’s offense the past two seasons, while intercepting 20 passes as a cornerback.

But like Northside, Dublin has faced an expected down year recently.

The year after Dublin tied Charlton County for the AA championship, Holmes entered fall practice needing to replace 21 of 22 starters. The worries of a down year appeared to be warranted after the Irish lost to West Laurens and Stephens County in their first four games. But the Irish eventually started clicking under Smith’s leadership and advanced to the Georgia Dome.

But this rebuilding effort will be different, Holmes said. Dublin doesn’t have Smith, whom the Irish leaned on to make play after play at quarterback.

The Irish also had the luxury that season of working out the kinks in non-region games. The Irish don’t have non-region games this season in their 11-team Region 3-AA schedule.

“Every game counts,” Holmes said.

Perhaps most importantly, the Irish don’t have nearly the number of players returning with in-game experience that they had in 2007. While they had to replace 21 starters in 2007, most of the replacements played a great deal the season before because the Irish blew out most of their opponents. The Irish played many more close games last season, so the number of returning players with varsity experience is lower.

“You have to define rebuilding differently every time,” Holmes said. “I don’t know what we have now. But our goals are pretty simple. Be one of the four playoff teams and be playing our best football in Week 11. It’s a tournament sport, and you just have to qualify for the tournament.”

KEY SPOTS

Other schools that won’t necessarily face rebuilding seasons still must find a way to replace key players.

In any other region in AAAA, Westside might be in trouble after graduating five all-state players, including the Sports Writers’ AAAA Offensive Player of the Year (Danny Madison) and the Defensive Player of the Year (Julian Burnett). The Seminoles also had to replace head coach Robert Davis, who resigned after passing Dan Pitts for the most wins by any Middle Georgia coach.

But first-year head coach Sheddrick Risper adds youthful exuberance to a team that has lost some stars but also returns quite a few. Safety DeAnthony Green and running back Robert Brown were both all-state honorable mentions, while receiver Ronnie Carswell and linebacker Carlos Cave received All-Middle Georgia recognition.

“We should be pretty good,” Risper said. “Our goal every year is going to be to win a state championship. Everything less will be a disappointment. Every year, you’ll need some improvement to get to that point. But that is still going to be our goal every year.”

Fitzgerald is expected to be a strong team in AA despite losing all-state safety Jemea Thomas and all-state linebacker Omar Daniel. The Purple Hurricane, however, return all-state candidates in fullback Nick Williams and athlete Trenton Pruitt.

Nearly every Macon school in Region 4-AA is dealing with losing some outstanding players. Southwest graduated three all-state players in Adrian Alexander, Khiry King and Josh Rousseau. Northeast lost 1,800-yard rusher A.J. Cornelius, and Central had to replace several key defensive standouts.

“Every year, you’ll lose some good ones,” Southwest head coach Carror Wright said. “We lost a lot of them. But our job is to get guys ready to play every year. That happens if you have guys like Adrian Alexander or if you’re replacing guys like Adrian Alexander.”

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