CLEVELAND — New White County football coach Tim Cokely walked into a program that had every opportunity to feel sorry for itself.
The Warriors refused, however, to be down on themselves — not after a 1-9 record in 2016 and a 4-16 mark over the last two seasons — and, currently 3-0 in 2017, they are reaping the benefits.
“I really liked our team when I got here in February. I liked the fact that our weightlifting coach, coach (Matt) VerSluis, had really put in the time in the transition. You know it’s easy to throw in the towel when the old coach is gone. People can just mail it in, not work, then we inherit a team that’s soft and weak. But he didn’t, he’d really put in the time,” said Cokely, a coaching veteran of Georgia and Florida high school football that took over in the offseason after Bill Ballard stepped away following three state playoff appearances in six campaigns.
“That helped us get jumpstarted, and then we’ve played pretty well, pretty well at the quarterback position, played well on defense. And, usually, if you do that and play well in the kicking game, you have a good season. We’re playing well so far, (but we have) a big game this week.”
Indeed, White County will play host to a team on Friday that has already completed a sea-change.
In 2012, Lee Shaw walked into a Rabun County program also struggling for traction, a Wildcats team that had won seven games in five seasons.
Shaw’s ‘Cats enter Friday’s showdown on the back of five straight state playoff appearances, three straight region championships and back-to-back state quarterfinal runs.
“The culture has changed; Rabun County is on the map. Our kids believe. They’ve earned this right to be in this position because of what they’ve invested and the games that they’ve won and the coaches that have done a great job and a community that has bought in 100 percent. It’s all come together that the culture has changed in Rabun County,” Shaw said.
Those two cultures should make for an intriguing showdown — not to mention their abilities on the field.
Rabun County’s version of the spread offense, led by senior quarterback Bailey Fisher (368 yards passing, 4 TDs, 69 percent completion rate/36 rushes, 226 yards, 4 TDs in two games) is a known entity throughout northeast Georgia, and it has already impressed so far this season thanks to a mix of athleticism and experience, putting up 90 points in a 2-0 start. Fisher is also making the most of a talented receiving corps that includes Cole Keener (4 receptions, 125 yards, 2 TDs), Braxton Hicks (3 receptions, 72 yards, TD), Dillyn Nichols (6 receptions, 42 yards) and Austin Jones (5 receptions, 82 yards, TD).
“Cole Keener, he made plays all last year, but he’s stepping up huge as a senior this year, with his leadership and all that as well,” Fisher said. “And Braxton Hicks, he’s our go-get-it guy. We can throw the deep ball at him and nine times out of 10 he’ll go up and make that play for us.”
The Warriors, meanwhile, have shown they also have plenty of playmakers, raising eyebrows through the first three contests by averaging 41 points per game. And this is in their first season under Cokely’s spread attack — with a freshman quarterback, J Ben Haynes, leading the way.
“We do a lot of things. But we don’t do them in a lot of ways, so I think our stuff is pretty easy. I think our offense is pretty easy to get a hold of,” Cokely said. “He’s (Haynes) doing well; the whole team is doing well. And this time of year at practice you just try to make little improvement and then really work on ball security and tackling, so that’s where we are.”
White County enters the contest passing for 113 yards and rushing for 218 yards per game — senior running back Kaleb Crane carrying much of the load with 352 yards on the ground (7.49 per carry) and seven touchdowns. Haynes is also a threat, rushing for 206 (7.36 per carry) and a score.
With that in mind, Friday’s outcome could come to defensive playmakers, and each team has its share on that side if the ball as well.
Rabun’s speedy defense leans on All-State safety Austin Jones (33 tackles) and inside linebackers Gavyn Jones (27 tackles) and Dawson Henricks (22 tackles). And the Wildcats have shown they can slow both athletic spread attacks — in a season-opening 62-21 win over Mt. Pisgah Christian — and stand up against more physical ground-based offenses — in a 28-6 win over Stephens County.
“The main thing, them guys, they just run to the ball; they get after it. As a running back you watch film and try to see where some openings might be, and they do a really good job of limiting that just by their effort and hustle,” Warriors standout Crane said.
Meanwhile, White County’s attack-minded defense is allowing just 94 yards passing and 98 yards rushing per game and features inside linebacker Michael Mintz (34 tackles, 3 for loss), outside linebacker Jay Lepkoske (21 tackles, interception, fumble recovery, 3 sacks) and linebacker Will Anglin (21 tackles). And the Warriors made a statement in last week’s 24-21 defeat of Habersham Central, which came into the contest after scoring 72 points in the season opener.
“They’re definitely a lot improved from last year,” Fisher said of White County. “They’re a very physical team as well up front. They seem like they make a lot of plays, and they know how to win close games.”
Both also possess strong special teams units and place-kickers that can be difference-makers — the Warriors’ Brett Bardenwerper is 4 of 7 on field goals with a long of 42 and made what proved to be the game-winning kick in last week’s win at Habersham. The Wildcats’ Andrew Barnes is just 1 of 1 on field goals, but it was a 50-yarder in the win over Mt. Pisgah.
Rabun has been in this situation a number of times over the past five seasons. But while the Warriors are relatively new at marquee showdowns, the early signs have been encouraging indeed.
“I don’t think we’re intimidated, or I don’t think we’re daunted by anything that’s put in front of us,” Cokely said. “Rabun County is a really good team, make no mistake. They’re a perennial playoff team, and they’ve got quite a collection of players. And with their age and experience I think we’re really going to have to play our best to beat them.”
Perhaps most impressive is that Shaw is now saying similar things about White County’s abilities.
“We know that White County’s got a good football team. They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. We are too,” Shaw said. “It’s the next game on the schedule; it’s big because of that. We want to go undefeated. (We) want to be undefeated and make a run in the playoffs, and (we) know they have to beat teams like this to do that.”
FRIDAY GAME NIGHT GAME of the WEEK
RABUN COUNTY at WHITE COUNTY
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: White County Stadium, Cleveland
-- RADIO: www.wrwh.com
-- RABUN (2-0, 0-0 Region 8-AA): Defeated Stephens County 28-6 last week. Wildcats are ranked fifth in Class AA
-- WHITE (3-0, 0-0 Region 7-AAAA): Defeated Habersham Central 24-21 last week
-- SERIES: Rabun leads 25-10. The Wildcats won 49-7 in 2016.