South Forsyth’s football team spent the last month making history. With a 31-6 win over Lambert, it clinched a region title for the first time as part of the Georgia High School Association’s highest classification, then playoff wins over Norcross and Tucker—both have two state titles since 2008—tore down the mantra that Forsyth County schools are just outs for more established programs in the playoffs.
It’s been a storybook season already, but on Friday the War Eagles face the challenge of being world-beaters. Thanks to a fateful and dramatic coin flip, executed over a three-way call after Friday’s 42-35 win over Tucker, South will host Colquitt County Friday night, instead of making the nearly four-hour drive to Moultrie.
Colquitt County is not just the defending Class AAAAAA state champion. The Packers, a program with rich history that dates back to 1913, are in the midst of a football renaissance of their own and of epic proportions. They own a 27-game winning streak that dates back to last season, and in that stretch have outscored opponents 46.5 to 17.4. Under the leadership of decorated head coach Rush Propst, formerly the man in charge of Hoover High School in Alabama where he won five state titles and was featured on MTV’s documentary series “Two-A-Days” prior to resigning under scandal, the Packers have gone 83-25 in eight seasons and haven’t lost a playoff game before the state semifinals in six years. They’ve been ranked No. 1 all season in the Georgia Sports Writers Association poll, and are currently tabbed as the second best team in the entire country by USA Today.
Nevertheless, it’s been business as usual this week at 585 Peachtree Parkway.
“(On Monday) we had as good and fun of a practice as we’ve had,” South head coach Jeff Arnette, who faced Propst and the Packers as defensive coordinator at Valdosta High in 2008 (42-39 win) and 2009 (14-7 loss), said. “Our guys just take care of what they can do. They know they can go out and practice as hard as they can every day, and when you do that, usually good things happen. Our leadership has taken out distractions.”
The Men from Moultrie
After defeating North Paulding 48-16 two weeks ago, Propst told the Moultrie Observer “we should have beat this team right here 67, 69 to nothing, or three, or whatever. That’s the way it ought to be when you come out and dominate.”
His team made up for it, defeating Central Gwinnett last week 62-21.
That’s the way football is when Propst wears the headset. He’s a coach that has found redemption in a hyper-focused addiction to football. In 2007 Propst resigned from his post at Hoover, which had become a national brand under his tutelage, after allegations of grade manipulation opened the door to media making claims, later revealed as true, that Propst was having an affair and supporting a second family.
Colquitt County, after going 2-8 in 2007, needed a man to get the job done, and, in an exile of sorts, Propst was the man to cross the border and take the job.
Below the fall line (or gnat line, depending on the season), high school football in Georgia takes on similar significance as the teams south to Tallahassee, northwest to the plains and northeast to the Classic City. Towns shut down on Friday nights, supporting the one football team in the county.
“It’s a way of life down there,” Arnette said. “The communities rally around it, they actually travel well too. Football is big in the south.”
The program is rich with finances. The Moultrie Observer reported three days ago that Propst is the second-highest high school football coach in the state, bringing in $123,904 this fiscal year. The program has tinkered with the idea of installing a $3.5 million indoor practice facility--it would be the first of its kind for a high school in Georgia. On Friday, fans are expected to show up in a convoy of buses to fill the away side of War Eagle Stadium.
Controversy hasn’t eluded the Colquitt program. In July the team’s leading returning rusher, TyKerrius “Grump” Jones, was one of seven teens arrested in Moultrie following the July 5 death of 68-year old John Hester. Jones, along with former Colquitt County players I-Key Pinkins and Brandon Wynn, were involved in a robbery-turned-shootout at Hester’s home.
Despite the grave offseason distraction, which included Propst suspending Jones indefinitely and removing him from all team activities, the Packers stayed together and did not miss a beat going into the 2015 campaign.
The talent on the Packers team runs deep. Receiver Kiel Pollard, an all-region selection for Region 1 and committed to play at the University of Arkansas, has 57 catches on the season for 890 yards and 15 touchdowns. Chase Parrish, the quarterback, has completed 70 percent of his passes this season for 2,559 yards, 32 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Without Jones, the team has taken a running back-by-committee approach with Nate Powell, Ty Lee and Nigel Hillie, along with Parrish, who averages 9.3 yards per carry on his own.
Defensive lineman Ty Philips, linebackers Akivie Bailey and Jay Blakely—committed to Tennessee—and defensive backs Landon Scott and Rakeem Hightower are all on the all-region first team for defense.
There’s a lot of history in Moultrie. After all, historic Mack Tharpe Memorial Stadium, dedicated in 1954, sits on the other side of a two-lane road from West View Cemetary, a graveyard that visitors might see as a bad omen.
South would be stepping into that history if it weren’t for the luck of a coin flip. Because both teams entered the playoffs as No. 1 seeds, the flip was necessary to determine who the home team for Friday’s state quarterfinal matchup would be.
Folks from Colquitt County consider themselves historians; those at South, including Arnette, simply want to tell you where they’re going.
South isn’t like Colquitt County. It’s a school still under constant renovation, and it will invite the Packers as they step off their buses with the dust of construction, cold touch of steel bleachers, and, well, the state’s second largest video board at any high school stadium.
From the wings on their jerseys to the shiny, metallic decals on their helmets, the South football team exudes youth—it is the essence of an underdog, and it’s been the identity the team has taken to heart since the summer when the senior class laid out very specific instructions to the team: Win a region title.
Now the War Eagles are in uncharted territory, and the chance to control the atmosphere at home, deep in the playoffs, against a state-wide brand is only bringing more excitement from Arnette.
“Our home crowd, our student body, our community this season has been unbelievable,” Arnette said. “I think getting to play another game at home is great for us. We’re excited that we won’t have to deal with buses, and traveling, eating and all of that. To have this in front of our fans is special.”
War Eagle Stadium isn’t a historic venue. Its seats aren’t crumbling with the endearment of decades of Friday nights, there’s no concourse adorned with historic photos. It’s a simple venue, one that replaces the novelty of physical bells and whistles with the simple heart and belief that the fans have brought to each home game this season.
On the field, South doesn’t have the entire county seat to draw talent from, so the team’s depth isn’t near Colquitt County’s. But, the War Eagles have proven they simply have the right men at the right places. The team performs at a constant state of equilibrium that combines its imperfections with its unrelenting will power and talent.
“Offensively, we’ve just got playmakers,” Arnette said. “We’ve got a really good quarterback (Davis Shanley) who makes plays in the passing game, I think (Sam) Outlaw shocked everybody with how well he has played, and Friday night people found out how fast he really is. (Jalen) Camp, Ronnie (Chambliss), (Cameron) Kline, and defensively, the key is our effort.
“I say it all the time. I can’t believe just how much the kids believe in each other. It’s truly the key to our success. They are a brotherhood, they truly have confidence, and all of that makes for a good football team.”
A win on Friday night would push South the deepest it has ever been in the playoffs since beginning play in 1989. For Arnette, who took Oconee County to an 11-1 record and into the quarterfinals in 2001, it would be the farthest he’s gone as a head coach.
“We’re going to play hard, as hard as we can, and see what happens,” Arnette said.