WARNER ROBINS -- Strolling into the postseason with one loss -- or none -- is the norm at Northside.
And it was the expectation back in August. But reality often renders expectations as wishful thinking.
Northside was breaking in a new quarterback. There were gaps on defense and a few on the offensive line. Depth was a concern, more than usual, and the secondary was young. The standout tailback wasn’t 100 percent, and it’s hard to get to 100 percent during the season.
The new quarterback spent the preseason running the offense, ahead of an inexperienced senior and a completely untested sophomore, only to go down with appendicitis on the Wednesday before the season opener, leaving things to either that completely untested sophomore or inexperienced senior or both.
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Fast forward about 12 weeks.
The defense held five opponents to fewer than 10 points. The running back got healthy and often carried a hefty load, numbering 31 carries in one game, and has the No. 9 single season in program history with 1,440 yards.
And the Eagles went with the sophomore quarterback, who often showed the tentativeness and inconsistency of a sophomore quarterback, only to progress and manage a win over Warner Robins and take over in the second half to beat Houston County.
The Eagles aren’t necessarily dominant in any phase, nor terribly dazzling on a regular basis. But here they are, 9-1 and region champs yet again as the playoffs beckon.
The fifth-ranked Eagles welcome Columbus namesake Northside on Friday to McConnell-Talbert Stadium, where they haven’t lost to anybody not wearing a Warner Robins uniform since falling 17-16 to Tucker in the 2011 semifinals, a game more than a few likened to last week’s 34-33 win over Houston County in many ways.
Northside rarely has much of much of an adjustment from the 10th game to the 11th, but this is a little different.
“A game like that is so draining, because it’s so emotional,” Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler said. “It affects you physically. We have to worry about that letdown of just being hyped up and so intense for really about a three-week period.
“We have to be able to refocus and get back to the business at hand and guard against a letdown.”
Of course, Northside hasn’t had only an 11-game season (i.e. first-round loss) since 2010. The last one before that was 1996. And the Eagles have had only five 12-game seasons since 2000.
The Eagles spent a short time at No. 1 in GHSA Class AAAAA this season, that stint ending with an upset by upstart Jones County on Sept. 19. Northside players and coaches admit the Eagles weren’t mentally sharp all week, and that Friday indicated it.
“I had a bad feeling,” senior tailback Willie Jordan said. “It wasn’t a normal week.”
But it was also the week that might push the Eagles a little further in the postseason than perhaps otherwise expected. Overconfidence will doubtfully be a problem for a team that might not have as much talent across the board as usual.
If the Eagles avoid an upset Friday, they would host either Dalton (8-2) or Salem (6-4). After that, odds are that Creekside (8-2) would face Northside in the quarterfinals. Only No. 2 Allatoona, No. 7 Creekside, No. 8 Harris County, which lost to Class AAA Westside during the regular season, and No. 10 Dalton are on Northside’s half of the bracket into the semifinals.
And a message board or two has been silly all season with projections of Northside and Ware County facing off deep in the playoffs. In August, that might have been a stretch, but here’s Northside rolling into the postseason with momentum and confidence.
Northside has built depth in the offensive and defensive line, as well as at linebacker, and a young secondary matured quickly, all aspects that are huge in the postseason.
“On the defensive line, we’ve had some guys come on to where we rotate two different groups in throughout the game at linebacker and up front,” said Kinsler, noting among others the play of Octavis Lester, Taykwan Northern and Cortez Fields. “And we’re not losing anything by rotating those kids through.”
Quarterback Tobias Oliver’s emergence in the second half against Houston County might be the key to getting to that Eagles-Gators matchup.
“You take a sophomore and put him in charge of our program on offense, we try not to put him in situations too many times where it’s on his shoulders,” Kinsler said. “You try to bring him along to where his confidence level just continues to rise.
“I think that’s the biggest thing. Each time he goes out, his confidence seems to build.”
Middle Georgia Class AAAAA playoff capsules
Record: 9-1; first place in Region 2-AAAAA.
Opponent: Northside-Columbus, 4-6; fourth place in Region 1-AAAAA.
Series record/last meeting: Northside leads 2-0/Northside won 38-12 in 2011.
Next up: Salem or Dalton.
Players to watch for Northside: DB Tae Daley, Soph.; LB Kam Burnett, Soph.; DL Isaiah Johnson, Sr.; QB Tobias Oliver, Soph.; DL Darius Richardson, Jr.
JONES COUNTY GREYHOUNDS
Record: 8-2; third place in Region 2-AAAAA.
Opponent: Carver-Columbus, 8-2; second place in Region 1-AAAAA.
Series record/last meeting: First meeting.
Next up: Winder-Barrow or Kell.
Players to watch for Jones County: RB Chandler Ramage, Jr.; WR Nick Singleton, Soph.; LB Daniel Curry, Jr.; DB Tyric Solomon, Jr.; LB Davin Price, Sr.
WARNER ROBINS DEMONS
Record: 6-4; fourth place in Region 2-AAAAA.
Opponent: Harris County, 8-2; first place in Region 1-AAAAA.
Series record/last meeting: Harris County leads 1-0/Harris County won 31-21 in 2012.
Next up: Creekview or Gainesville.
Players to watch for Warner Robins: CB Leon Perry, Jr.; DE Stephone Raybon, Sr.; OL Scotty Kent, Sr.; RB/DB Reggie Gordon, Sr.; DB/WR Marquez Callaway, Jr.