Unbeaten Northside finds ways to thrive in midst of personnel changes

WARNER ROBINS — Conrad Nix knew his team had question marks before the season.

The Eagles’ head coach had to replace his starting quarterback, his top three wide receivers and a running back who rushed for 1,677 yards and 23 touchdowns. That was just on offense.

The Eagles also graduated two of the top high school football prospects in the country — Abry Jones and Eric Fields — and All-Middle Georgia performers at linebacker, defensive tackle and cornerback.

Nix didn’t hide his concerns prior to the start of the season either. He knew he lost some outstanding players, and he was going to be breaking in a number of inexperienced players in GHSA Region 1-AAAAA, long considered one of the toughest in Georgia.

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

But the Eagles had more confidence internally.

Nix knows his program doesn’t really have rebuilding seasons. The Eagles have won 10 or more games in 11 consecutive seasons.

“I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but I never go into a game thinking we will lose it,” Nix said. “A lot of things can go wrong, but we expect to do well every game. We lost a lot of great players, but a lot of guys have also stepped up.”

As it turned out, the Eagles have escaped the rebuilding season again this year. The Eagles, who had to replace eight offensive starters and six on defense, are 8-0 heading into tonight’s rivalry game with Warner Robins. That run included a win over Class AAA power Carver-Columbus (a top-five team that hasn’t lost since that game); a gutsy, come-from-behind win at Valdosta; a win at Tift County after spotting the Blue Devils a 13-point lead; and a win over Lowndes, which was ranked in the top five nationally at the time.

A win next week over Colquitt County would clinch a region championship for the Eagles.

“A lot of people were counting us out,” senior defensive back Brandon Brown said. “We lost a lot of superstars. But just because the guys we had coming back weren’t getting the newspaper clippings didn’t mean they weren’t great players. We had guys ready to step up, guys ready to make those plays. We have a lot of pride at Northside.”

Northside’s quick reconstruction has come from players who, like Brown said, weren’t household names in Middle Georgia at this time last season.

The most prominent returning players — Brown, fellow defensive back Brison Williams, who has committed to South Carolina, Greg Clark and Deilouse Jackson — have continued to man a dominating defense. The Eagles allow an average of nine points per game, good for seventh best in AAAAA. That defense held mighty Lowndes to a season-low point total in a 10-7 win.

Also, the Vikings haven’t scored fewer than 31 points in their other seven games, and they have put up 75, 57, 51 and 50 points in other games.

“We have that same intensity (that we had in the Lowndes game) every day at practice,” Brown said. “But we wanted to prove that we were a good team that night. We wanted to show that we could compete with the best of them.”

The offense has also found a way to replace much of the talent it lost. The Northside offense has been slowed twice — in a 16-13 win over Valdosta and in the Lowndes game — but has found a way to make big play even when things aren’t going well.

Junior Shaquille O’Neill has filled the shoes of all-state running back Xavier Bacon by rushing for 759 yards and 11 touchdowns through eight games. Quarterback Briar Van Brunt has passed for 499 yards and three touchdowns, but he has also been devastating on the ground, where he has rushed for 478 yards and seven touchdowns.

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