JEFFERSON — Jefferson football has the playoff pedigree most programs aspire to — including White County.
“Jefferson’s got a great team, a great tradition. They are where we want to go with our program,” Warriors coach Tim Cokely said of a Dragons team that is set for its sixth straight playoff appearance and 17th in 18 years.
On Friday night, White County will take its best shot at claiming some of its own postseason glory and a highly-prized scalp as the Warriors travel south to face the Dragons in the first round of the Class AAAA bracket.
After putting together one of the more remarkable turnarounds in all of northeast Georgia this season, White County — which was a combined a 4-16 the last two seasons — enters the playoffs under first-year coach Cokely for the first time in three years with both excitement and confidence after posting a 7-3 record to finish as the No. 3 seed in a small but stout Region 7-AAAA that includes No. 4 Marist and No. 7 Blessed Trinity.
“It’s a great privilege to get into the state playoffs. We’ve been working hard; it’s just been a real dream for us because the past (two years) we haven’t made it,” said Warriors senior running back/safety Bailey Anderson. “We’re really prepared. I feel like coaches get us in the right spot, and if we just execute everything will be all right.”
White County’s three losses all came to ranked teams — Marist, Blessed Trinity and Class AA No. 5 Rabun County — and the Warriors impressed throughout the season via a balanced offense, opportunistic defense and stout kicking game.
“The number one thing (you notice is) how hard they play,” Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart said. “They’re one of those typical teams if you stay spread out with them and they have numbers, (Kaleb Crane is) going to run it well. And if you stack the ball, they’re good enough to throw the football. And defensively they play very, very hard with great effort, and they have a pretty physical defensive line and hustle to the football. That combined with having an All-State kicker there’s no small wonder they’ve had the year they’ve had.”
A battering ram equally capable of ripping off long runs Crane has rushed for 1,423 yards and 21 touchdowns, pacing a spread attack averaging 208 yards per game on the ground.
Meanwhile, freshman quarterback J Ben Haynes has developed impressively throughout the campaign, passing for 1,693 yards and 15 TDs against just 5 interceptions, while completing just over 60 percent of his passes. Ty Ulrich leads all receivers with 23 receptions for 508 yards and 6 TDs on an offense that has put up more points this season (332) than it did in the last two seasons combined (281).
It is an offense that has Jefferson defenders’ attention.
“You’ve got to contain No. 22, Kaleb (Crane),” Dragons senior defensive back (and star running back) Colby Wood said. “I’ve been playing against him since Rec ball; he’s a big back, and they’ve got a couple of athletes that can get after it.”
The Warriors defense is saying very similar things about the Dragons — certainly about Wood, who has rushed for 1,206 yards and 16 TDs, as well as caught 17 passes for 207 yards and 4 TDs this season. It has been another stellar season for the senior, who already has 6,218 career rush yards and 76 rushing scores (placing him 15th in GHSA history).
Yet the Warriors also know the Dragons are a multi-dimensional offense thanks to quarterback Bryce Moore (1,520 yards passing, 17 TDs, 5 INTs, 60 percent completion rate) and a strong receiving corps led by Sammy Elegreet (34 receptions, 543 yards, 2 TDs) — not to mention an offensive line that is leading the Dragons to 398 yards per game (237 rushing).
“They’ve got size, probably the most size of any team we’ve played. But this is how it is. You’re not going to go to the second round and find a smaller team; it’s just how it is, especially in Georgia, especially in this part of Georgia,” Cokely said. “You have to play the line of scrimmage well; we know that, we’re not fooled. They do that well; we have to match it.”
Coming off a disappointing performance in their final regular season game against Marist — a 35-7 defeat marked by multiple turnovers — the Warriors are eager to get back to the style that helped them back into the postseason (they had already clinched a playoff berth prior to last week).
“We didn’t play well Friday night, but it was just because we didn’t play our game,” Cokely said. “We have a lot of confidence. Confidence is not overrated, and we really believe that we can play well.”
The Dragons too have experienced disappointment this season — marked by a shock 43-29 loss at St. Pius — and are looking to make a postseason statement after finishing as the No. 2 seed in Region 8-AAAA following last year’s state semifinal run.
“We have a saying around here that “they remember November.” They remember these games; they remember the legacy that you write through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs,” Cathcart said. “And we stubbed our toe against a good St. Pius team and bounced back and we’re excited about seeing exactly what legacy we can write for this chapter in this program, and that will start here Friday night against White County.”
WHITE COUNTY at JEFFERSON
-- WHAT: First round Class AAAA playoff game
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Jefferson
-- RADIO: www.wrwh.com
-- WHITE COUNTY (7-3): No. 3 seed from Region 7-AAAA
-- JEFFERSON (8-2): No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAAA
-- NOTABLE: Jefferson owns a 12-4-1 series lead but the two teams have not played since 2005.
-- WINNER PLAYS: Chapel Hill at Ridgeland winner in second round