A title defense, widely considered one of the most difficult feats in sports, will be the goal for the Hawkinsville Red Devils this season after grabbing last year’s GHSA Class A public school championship with a 15-6 victory over Irwin County. And the Red Devils begin their treacherous road Friday night in enemy territory as they square off with long-time rival Bleckley County.
“Any time we play Bleckley, there’s a big rivalry,” Hawkinsville head coach David Daniell said. “It dates back many, many years. It doesn’t take a lot to get the kids excited to play Bleckley County.”
The feelings are mutual among the Royals. Tracy White, Bleckley’s head coach, played for and graduated from the school before a short stint at Dublin. Now in his fourth year as the head coach of the Royals, White still possesses an unhinging desire to defeat Hawkinsville.
“I grew up -- I’m not going to use the word ‘hating’ Dodge (County) and Hawkinsville -- but those are the two I always wanted,” White said.
And even though White considers the rivalry friendlier today than it was during his time as a Royals player, the familiarity with Hawkinsville’s staff and community incites an even greater urge to leave victoriously.
“I think I said last year I consider Coach Daniell a good friend, but that motivates you even more when you’re playing somebody you know and you like,” White said. “You want to win.”
During last year’s title run, the Red Devils ended Bleckley County’s three-game winning streak in the series with a 41-7 win. White said he “certainly” wants to jump back into winning ways against the team’s rivals, as last week marked Bleckley County’s second straight loss to another rival, Dodge County, by a 42-7 score. He wants to avoid, at all costs, back-to-back losses against both of their rivals.
But according the White, ending such streak will hinge on the Royals protecting the football. In its opener, Bleckley County lost five turnovers in the first half and six total. Four of them were on special teams and led to touchdowns.
“I’ve told our kids, ‘If we turn the ball over like that against anybody, I don’t care what classification ... you’re going to get beat,’ ” White said.
He considered the special teams play “very, very frustrating,” because during his four-year tenure, White has stressed special teams play in accordance with controlling the clock, limiting turnovers and playing good defense.
While Bleckley County focuses on turnovers, Hawkinsville looks to recover from losing 16 starters -- seven on offense and nine on defense -- from last year’s title team, including the challenge of replacing four-year starting quarterback Dakota Sloan.
“I don’t know if you can recover from that,” Daniell said with a laugh. “We’ve got some guys who played behind them last year that didn’t get a lot of playing time, and we plugged them in, and we’re going to see what they can do.”
But White does not take Hawkinsville’s inexperience for granted and said his team will need to eliminate turnovers in order to win.
“They can say they’ve lost all their defensive players, but they still have some,” White said. “Trust me.”
While Daniell does not expect one particular “x-factor” to dominate the game, he wants to see progress from the quarterback position and sound tackling on defense. While his team lacks experience, Daniell still sets the goals high -- he wants to win all the region games, win a region championship and compete for another state title.
“We love to play them, and we love to beat them,” White said of the Red Devils.