Saturday September 23rd, 2017 5:18AM

More history beckons for never-say-die Dragons

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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JEFFERSON -- Over a near four-decade-long span of coaching, Jefferson's T McFerrin had just about seen it all.

Then came 2012.

After watching his Dragons drop a season-opener to arch-rival Commerce, McFerrin led Jefferson to a 12-game win streak that included the program's deepest postseason run in 35 years and a triple overtime defeat of Fitzgerald that left his players struggling to leave the field -- both thanks to their own exhaustion and an exhilarated student body that emptied the Memorial Stadium stands and swarmed the victors in celebration.

"That was the most incredible thing I've seen in 38 years of coaching," McFerrin said of last week's 53-51 quarterfinal win.

The coach might as well have been referring to the season at large -- though McFerrin has yet to find the right words to describe his team's charge into the semifinals.

"This is indescribable," McFerrin said. "This has been so rewarding... But the players don't want it to stop. They want it to keep going, and so do I."

To do that, the Dragons (12-1) must recuperate from last week's roller-coaster victory in time to take on a Greater Atlanta Christian team making its first state semifinal appearance since 2002.

Watch highlights from last week's triple overtime quarterfinal defeat of Fitzgerald below.

"We're coming off a very physical and emotional game, and we've got a lot of kids with bumps and bruises," McFerrin said. "And we've got to get well and see if we've got some kids who can step in and fill some holes this week."

That certainly includes at the placekicking and punting spots, where senior Chandler Schlutow was knocked from last week's win. Meanwhile, the rest of the Dragons will prepare to face a Spartans team that is coming off its own whisker-thin victory that included a late field goal to defeat Early County, 27-24.

Greater Atlanta Christian (10-3) features a balanced and clinical offense that is averaging 34 points per game and is led by quarterback Rafe Chapple and running back Kyle Scales. Chapple has passed for over 2,000 yards, while Scales has rushed for over 1,200.

They are an outstanding team and have won three playoff games kind of like we have," McFerrin said. "They've got a great quarterback, a good running back and a sound defense."

Much the same could be said for the Dragons, who have soared into the fourth round of the postseason via clutch plays from up and down the roster. And while senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs may receive plenty of attention, Jefferson has produced a number of heroes this season -- not least of which is an undersized defense that has dominated at times and come up with key plays at others -- including holding Fitzgerald out of the end zone on 2-point conversion attempts twice during last week's marathon battle.

"We're just an overachieving group," McFerrin said. "I am so proud of these guys. We're not supposed to be here. To come this far is unheard of. It's miraculous really."

With a number of new faces in starting roles this season, Jefferson's school-record win streak has come as more than a pleasant surprise to McFerrin.

"This was the most inexperience we had had in a long, long time," McFerrin said. "I just didn't know to expect."

That all began to change in September, thanks in large part to a 27-21 fightback win at North Hall -- now a Class AAA semifinalist.

"That game was huge," McFerrin said. "If we had lost that game the season might have gone in the other direction."

Instead, the Dragons charged into the Region 8-AA schedule, including a 31-0 beatdown of then-top 10 Washington-Wilkes.

"We just built on those two games really, and kept growing from those week to week," McFerrin said.

That maturation brought the Dragons to last week's roller coaster victory in which the hosts saw a 15-point third quarter lead evaporate only to respond and -- thanks to senior linebacker Wesley Simonton -- block a field goal to send the contest into overtime. And Jefferson refused to yield in bonus time, setting up Shirreffs' game-winning 2-point conversion pass to Tristen Jackson.

"That took a lot of character and just will to win," McFerrin said. "They never gave up. This group will never give up."

That may be the single most valuable asset the Dragons share, along with a genuine desire to succeed for each other.

"Chemistry is so important, and these guys all want to win for each other," McFerrin said. "We've got some great leaders (including the likes of Shirreffs, Simonton, Kody McDonald and Jackson) but we also have a lot of guys who lead silently and work hard and know how to get the job done."

That attitude and mindset has allied with Jefferson's success on the field to produce plenty of excitement around a program that has dined at the postseason table on numerous occasions but has not hung around for the main course since falling to Lincoln County in the 1977 Class B championship.

"What I saw on the field last week with the students coming down out of the stands was just incredible," McFerrin said. "I've never seen anything like that celebration."

Dragons coaches, players and fans hope it was only the warm-up.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Jefferson
-- GAC (10-3, No. 2 seed Region 6-AA): Defeated Early County 27-24 in the quarterfinals.
-- JEFFERSON (12-1, No. 1 seed Region 8-AA): Defeated Fitzgerald 53-51 in triple overtime in the quarterfinals.
-- HISTORY: GAC is 4-0 against Jefferson, winning four straight regular season games 1996-99.
-- WINNER PLAYS: Calhoun vs. Lamar County winner in the Class AA title game.
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