TIGER — Rob Stockton admitted it was the most nervous he had ever been.
The Rabun County defensive coordinator -- who was a standout prep player for the Wildcats and later Georgia Southern where he recently was inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame -- was not referencing any game or particular play as a player or coach.
Rather, the high-tension moment came during a meeting with the then-newly named Wildcats football coach Lee Shaw back in 2012.
“Coach Shaw had always been a role-model for me. He was a senior at Rabun County when I was in the seventh grade. I wanted to be like him. I even wore the same number (No. 14) when I got to the varsity,” said Stockton, who has a regular day job as part of his family’s longtime automotive business in Rabun County. “He called me up and asked me if I wanted to be the defensive coordinator. No lying, I was nervous about it because I had never been a coordinator before and I didn’t want to let him down.
“But one of Coach Shaw’s greatest strengths is that he sees things in people and is a great judge of someone’s abilities. He sees the big picture when most of us don’t. I guess he saw something in me.”
Indeed Shaw did.
“Rob was a tremendous player, especially in college,” Shaw recalled. “He was already on the staff helping out. I just knew he would make a great coach. I believed in him and his passion for Rabun County football. That’s what I saw. I just felt he would be the right fit for what we wanted to do.”
But it’s easy to see that some might have thought Shaw a little crazy. Coming off a 10-year run at Flowery Branch during which he led the Falcons to four quarterfinals, two semifinals, and one state championship game appearance, the head coach could have lured any number of high-profile assistants to his staff.
However, Shaw said he had just one person in mind from the time he headed up Highway 441 to his alma mater.
“Rob is like family to me,” Shaw said. “I passed my number down to him. He’s loyal and, most importantly, he’s a Wildcat down to his bones. I wasn’t worried about what anyone was saying or thinking.
“What I wanted to build was a group of coaches that understood Rabun County football and that would give these kids a chance to show what they can do. He does that. I wouldn’t want anybody else running the defense.”
The numbers back up Shaw’s faith in Stockton and the program's other defensive coaches. After allowing 290 points in their first season, the Wildcats have gotten significantly stingier. And after yielding 250 points in 2014, Rabun has given up just 120, 123, and 137 in the three seasons since.
Rabun County has finished in the top five in Class AA each of the last four seasons, including this season. The Wildcats are currently No. 2 in total defense behind Hapeville Charter. The Wildcats have held four of their 2017 opponents, including their last two playoff victims, to season-lows in points. The Wildcats have also allowed just 34 points (8.5 points per game) in the playoffs -- an improvement over their 11.3 ppg average during the regular season. Rabun also has been the stingiest team in 2A in the playoffs, as Hapeville has given up 48 postseason points (12 ppg).
It is no coincidence that Rabun will face off with Hapeville for the Class AA state title at 1 p.m. Saturday at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
It is the first-ever state championship game appearance for the Wildcats, who began playing football in 1949. Last week’s 23-12 win over Brooks County represented Rabun's first-ever semifinals appearance after two straight quarterfinal losses. It is also the first finals appearance for the Hornets, now in just their seventh season of varsity play.
“There were some growing pains early,” Stockton said of his defense. “We struggled to find the right personnel. But coach Shaw never seemed to lose faith. We’ve gotten better each year since I think. The kids work extremely hard to do what we want them to do.”
The Wildcats' prolific and explosive offense has taken most of the media spotlight behind senior quarterback Bailey Fisher, who will finish inside the state's top 10 for all-time passing yards and touchdowns. And Rabun County does come into the contest as the highest-scoring team in Class AA, posting an astounding 661 points (47.2 ppg), which is 150 more than Hapeville (511, 36.5 ppg) on the season.
“The offense gets a lot attention which is kind of the way we want it really,” Stockton said. “We’re probably underestimated at the beginning of the game but by the end I think the other team knows we can play. This is just a bunch of lunch-pail guys who are fighters.”
Scheme or preparation were never issues for the Rabun County defenses of the past. Elite speed, or rather the lack of it, held the Wildcats back once into the third round of the playoffs.
The Wildcats are speedier and closer than they appear in the sideview mirror in 2017.
“We definitely are faster than last year,” Stockton said. “After the loss (to Fitzgerald in the 2016 quarterfinals) our kids became almost married to the weight room. There have been some huge changes because they wanted to maximize their skill sets.”
Cornerback Cole Keener (11 interceptions), safety Austin Jones (5 INTs) and linebacker Justin Wilkes (4 INT) have helped turn Rabun County into pure ball-hawks with 25 interceptions and 39 takeaways overall.
“Cole, Austin, the defensive line guys are all really getting after it, especially in the playoffs,” Shaw said. “It has been fun to watch these guys play defense.”
Last week looked like another one of those potential speed mismatches for Rabun County against Brooks County in the quarterfinals. But the Wildcats out-paced the Trojans, swarming to the ball and holding the Trojans' powerful rushing attack to just 84 yards, more than 115 below their season average. They also picked off five passes, as they forced the Trojans to throw the ball a season-high 43 times. Brooks County was averaging just 16 passing attempts per game until last week.
“We challenged our guys to stop the run,” Stockton said. “We didn’t do anything fancy other than just play physical. Once we clamped down then they started to throw, which plays into our hands with our speed guys on the outside.”
Keener had three picks and Jones one interception to snuff out a late drive by the Trojans.
“We just have a lot of confidence in the secondary right now,” Stockton said. “(Secondary) Coach (Kolby) Byrd has just done a great job with that group.”
They will need a similar, if not better, effort on Saturday against the Hornets. Hapeville Charter took down powerful defending state champion Benedictine in the quarterfinals behind senior quarterback Hajj-malik Williams, who spearheaded a 31-point barrage against the Cadets. It was the most points Benedictine had surrendered since 2015.
“He is the total package,” Shaw said of Williams. “But they have so many weapons you can’t key on just one guy. They were impressive against Benedictine. This will be a huge challenge for us.”
However, Stockton said they have been getting a season’s worth of preparation for Williams and the Hornets without having to leave the confines of Tiger.
“We practice every day against what I think is the best quarterback in the state,” Stockton said. “Bailey has made us a better defense and a better team. Williams is a different kind of quarterback and we haven’t had to go against someone like him in a game like this. But we’ll be ready because Bailey has gotten us ready for this moment.”
Shaw, who has become known for his offensive prowess as coach, felt that neither offense would decide who will become the new kings of Class AA on Saturday.
“Our defense will be the key to the game,” Shaw said. “They have been playing at a high level against some great competition in the playoffs. We have confidence in them.
“Offenses need to be able to score but defense wins championships. You can’t win a title without a great defense. We have a great defense.”
Shaw said that once the smoke settles on Saturday he hopes the rest of the state will finally see what has been hiding in plain sight.
“Yea, we kind of want it where maybe the other teams only think about our offense. I’m sure our defense is overlooked. Maybe it won’t be any more after Saturday,” Shaw said.
HAPEVILLE CHARTER vs. RABUN COUNTY
-- WHEN: 1 p.m. Saturday
-- WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
-- HAPEVILLE CHARTER (13-1, Region 6, No. 1 seed): Defeated Heard County 28-21 last week
-- RABUN COUNTY (14-0, Region 8, No. 1 seed): Defeated Brooks County 23-12 last week
-- NOTABLE: First-ever meeting between the two teams. ... It is the first time into the finals for both teams and both are seeking their first-ever state title in football. ... The Wildcats are the only undefeated team left in Class 2A. ... Rabun County is No. 1 in offense and No. 2 in defense while the Hornets are No. 1 in defense and No. 7 in offense.