Benji Harrison knew early on that Jackson County football possessed talent -- he also knew the Panthers faced a giant psychological hurdle.
So when Harrison took over at Jackson County, he set about working on his teams' collective psyche -- alongside the X's and O's -- an approach that has helped lead the Panthers to their first-ever state playoff game tonight.
"I asked for a huge commitment from the players, and they bought in 100 percent," Harrison said. "When a program hasn't had the success it wants to have, it takes a huge belief on the side of those kids to believe we can turn it around. The parents, school and administration giving us everything we needed to be successful. This has just been huge."
Huge has been the key word for a number of area programs this season, as teams like Chestatee, Rabun County and Dawson County have also played through historic campaigns, and each enters tonight's first round of the postseason having either accomplished firsts or re-visiting heights not scaled in some time.
Earlier this week, Access North Georgia.com sports editor Morgan Lee caught up with members of the War Eagles, Wildcats, Panthers and Tigers and talked to them about their team's first round playoff showdowns and the impressive turnarounds that have led to those postseason berths. To watch a video presentation about the four programs, simply click "play" below.
NOTE:To read in-depth previews of each of tonight's first round playoff games, click here.
While the fourth-seeded Panthers (6-4) are in the postseason for the first time, the War Eagles will play host to their first ever state playoff game.
Chestatee (8-2), the No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAAA, will play host to LaGrange (5-5), the No. 3 seed from Region 5-AAAA, looking to use the emotion of the moment but also wary of not getting overhyped for the contest.
"We talk about that it's the first time home playoff game, the first time eight win season, but we also talk about the fact that it's just another game," said War Eagles coach Stan Luttrell, who is taking his program back to state for the third time in program history and the first time since 2006 -- his first season in charge at Chestatee. "We are business as usual. We want our guys to be proud but also realize that we're not done and we have more to accomplish."
At Rabun County, which will notch its first state playoff contest since 1998 tonight when they travel to face Heard County, there may be a temptation for players to feel like their accomplishments in getting back to state would be enough. But coach Lee Shaw -- who built Flowery Branch into a consistent playoff and title contender before taking over his alma mater last winter -- believes his team will continue to display the attitude that helped them corral their first winning record since 2000.
"They've battled all season, and they've 100 percent bought in to what I've asked of them," said Shaw, whose fourth-seeded Wildcats will travel 163 miles to face the undefeated Region 5-AA champions. "It's going to be a tremendous challenge, but to get to the next level, you have to compete with teams like that. And this week of practice has been tremendous."
While Dawson County hasn't been out of playoff picture as long, none of the Tigers current players were on hand when the program last marched into the postseason in 2004.
But after narrowly missing out on the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, Dawson County's expectations ran high for this season, and coach Jeff Lee believes that has made and will continue to make a difference tonight when they travel to face St. Pius X.
"We've been very close the last two years, been in the game 10 play-in situation. We weren't able to hold leads late in the second half in both those games. So we tried to build on that," said Lee, who will lead his fourth-seeded Tigers against the seventh-ranked, Region 6-AAA champs in Atlanta. "We tried to build this team and this senior class that this is what's expected of you. We expected to be here whether as a one, two, three of four (seed)."
And now that they're here, each of the programs believe they have a chance to do something within their respective brackets.
"In the lockerroom everyone's excited, they're on facebook, twitter... everybody's posting stuff about it," Chestatee senior receiver Tony Fayson said. "We're going to shock the world."
Harrison believes that attitude is critical if team unused to the playoff spotlight are to continue their progression.
"Our goal was to get in the playoffs, but I told the kids let's don't be complacent with that," Harrison noted. "I hear the fans that are excited congratulating (the players) on getting there. But we don't want to be that team that's just happy to be there. We want to be able to play when we get there and make some noise. It's a huge first step making