Frank Hepler knew something was different towards the end of the Bulldogs’ spring scrimmage.
Against Alpharetta, the Bulldogs were set up at the Raiders’ three-yard line late in the fourth quarter. On fourth down, the coaches all wanted the typical preseason call: go for the touchdown and get more offensive work in, even though a chip-shot field goal would guarantee the victory.
But the players had a different idea. After an 0-10 season the year before, they wanted a win – any win.
“They just wanted a winning play,” Hepler said. “So I'm like, ‘Alright, kick the field goal.’ We were excited that we beat a good football team in Alpharetta. You can't base your season on winning a spring game, but for us, I think it was good. For me, that was the moment like, ‘We've got something here.’”
As the 2018 season has progressed, moral victories have transformed into actual ones, culminating last week with a thrilling 26-21 win against South Forsyth that clinched Central’s first playoff berth since 2001. And while this season has been the Bulldogs’ best in almost two decades, it still hasn’t necessarily been a charmed one, as the Bulldogs have overcome plenty of key injuries and a late season slump to get to this position.
Those speed bumps started before the regular season even began. Quarterback Hunter Cagle and returning all-region linebacker Mitch Weber were both expected to be key players this year, but both went down in the team’s fall scrimmage against Meadowcreek with injuries, which were later found to be season-ending. Hepler says it was disheartening for everyone after such an optimistic offseason, but the Bulldogs weren’t ready to give up just yet.
“To see (Weber) go down was heartbreaking,” safety Tristen Rose said. “Having the next man up (mentality), knowing what to do, goes a long way.”
That mentality has come with preparation, and that’s been bolstered with the hiring of three new coaches in the offseason. Hepler and Rose credit the additions of defensive coordinator David Rooney, special teams coordinator/running backs coach Bill Hobbs and inside linebackers coach Shane Owen with much of their success.
“We were shorthanded in the last couple of years,” Hepler said. “We had great core guys but we were short at a couple of positions. Mr. Young, our principal, stepping up and letting me hire some guys, that really was a huge factor for us.”
Central began the region schedule by stunning North Forsyth with a 24-20 win, but that too saw the Bulldogs take an injury-related loss. Ryan Van Uum, the starting quarterback for Central at that point, was hurt in that game, thrusting sophomore Bronson Landreth into a spotlight he never thought he’d be in.
Still, having competed with Cagle and Van Uum in the offseason, Hepler had confidence in his young signal caller. Landreth had some initial doubts, but working with the first team and trusting the rushing attack has gone a long way.
“I (thought) I was probably going to run some JV and hopefully get some snaps in practice,” Landreth said. “I didn't think I could handle a big game like that on Friday. I'm more confident and more controlling on the line. They all listen to me now.”
For two games, it started to look like the Bulldogs’ victory over North was an outlier. Against West, the Bulldogs were mauled at the point of attack on both sides of the ball in a shutout loss, and against Milton, the Eagles’ talent outmatched them. Hepler saw that the North win had gotten to their heads, and while confidence was beginning to wane, Hepler wasn’t about to let that continue.
“We just sat down the Monday before the South game and said, 'Look, let's go back to basics,’” Hepler said. “’Guys, you're a good football team. You've got to start believing in yourselves again. You let yourselves down the last few weeks, and I let you down. We believe in you and we know you can do some great things, so let's get back to doing what we do.’”
Physicality on the line was one of the biggest points of emphasis for the Bulldogs leading up to the South game, and in the first half against the War Eagles, that paid off. The pressure on South forced a mistake, and remembering a formation that the Bulldogs had talked about weeks before, Rose jumped a Drew Morris pass and took off.
“I feel like the pick-six definitely set the tone for the game,” Rose said. “I don't want to toot my own horn or anything, but it for sure set the tone and everyone followed behind it.”
After the win over South, Central is in position to get a No. 3 seed in the playoffs, which would be a definite boost against a stacked Region 8-7A. But to even have that chance, they’ll have to beat Lambert. The Bulldogs know they can’t underestimate anyone, especially after their own experiences.
“We're just going to do what we can against Lambert,” Rose said. “They're a good football team. You have to respect everyone you play. Don't doubt anyone.”