Road games for high school football teams can be about a combination of things. Sometimes it’s about the miles. Sometimes it’s about attitude. Sometimes it’s about the bonding experience.
Banks County, Rabun County, and Union County all hit the road on Friday night, and the trio of northeast Georgia football teams will travel roughly 320 miles and over six hours combined, one way, to open their 2018 Region 8-2A schedules.
Banks County heads to Social Circle (62 miles, 1 hour, 17 minutes), Rabun County travels to Putnam County (118 miles, 2 hours, 9 minutes) and Union County treks to Monticello (142 miles, 3 hours). Also in 8-2A Elbert County will play host to Oglethorpe County.
Region 8-2A has always been one of the larger regions area-wise in the state, stretching from the northeast Georgia border in Rabun and Union to Elbert County on the South Carolina border to prime hunting territory in the middle of the state in Monticello (Jasper County) and Putnam County (Eatonton).
Yet each highly-traveled northeast Georgia team from 8-2A takes a somewhat different approach when it comes to hitting the open road.
Union County coach Brian Allison said the fans and media make more of it than they do.
“You have road games every year,” he said. “We just look at a longer trip like this one as just something we have to leave a little earlier for. We prepare the same each week for every opponent so that doesn’t really change.
“Most of our guys will probably sleep on the bus on the way down. We’ll stop at Fort Yargo and have lunch and stretch out a little. It (the long trip) shouldn’t affect us on the field.”
Rabun County coach Lee Shaw, whose Wildcats finished as the 2017 state runner-up in Class 2A, said they try and use the long road trips to simulate the playoff experience. And Rabun has already traveled to Statesboro -- a 226-mile trek taking more than four hours -- to play Bremen in its season-opener.
“We’ve already had one long trip this year so we’re used to it. Long road trips are normal for this region, though,” Shaw said. “But we also use these as a way to prepare for the playoffs. In (Class) 2A you’re going to have one or two very long road trips in the playoffs so being familiar with the travel and the environment is something we try to expose our kids too.”
Banks County coach Jay Reid, who picked up his first win as a head coach last week after serving as an assistant coach at several northeast Georgia programs, including West Hall, said long trips are something he embraces as a way to measure just what kind of team he has.
“I kind of like these longer (road) trips because you deal with a lot of different stimuli as a team,” Reid said. “You’re going to see and experience things you see in the playoffs. That’s a good thing in terms of being prepared.”
All three teams face different challenges, however, on Friday.
Union County (3-0, 0-0 Region 8-2A) takes on a Monticello squad (1-2, 0-0 Region 8-2A) whose two losses are by a combined eight points. However, the Purple Hurricanes are notoriously slow starters. They have dropped their last three region openers and 16 of their last 18 region openers since 2000.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have exploded out of the gate averaging 43.3 points a game behind new starting quarterback Pierson Allison (204 yards/game and 5 TD passes), a junior, and receivers Kyle Morlock, Cayden Rich, Sawyer Drake, and Kanon Hemphill while the defense is giving up just 20 total points (6.7 ppg) with five takeaways so far.
“We’ve played some good football through the first three games,” coach Allison said. “But we haven’t seen the speed we’ll see from Monticello. The key matchups I think will be the battles on the lines.
“Pierson has played pretty well but he has a lot of weapons around him so he doesn’t have to do everything. It’s always important to get off to a good start in region play and feel like we’ll be ready when we get down there.”
Rabun County, meanwhile, faces a Putnam team it has dominated in two previous meetings, outscoring the War Eagles (1-2, 0-0 Region 8-2A) 116-0 in two previous meetings. The Wildcats (2-1, 0-0 Region 8-2A) have senior all-star Austin Jones, who returned a punt and had an interception over a 37-second span to spark a 41-14 win last week over Stephens County. Rabun also features freshman quarterback Gunner Stockton, who coach Shaw said has the potential to be the best quarterback talent he has ever coached -- and that includes graduated stars Bailey Fisher and sons Connor and Jaybo Shaw.
“Gunner is playing above his freshman years and has the ability and all the tools to be a special talent. Austin is just a tremendous player and leader for this team,” Shaw said. “Putnam is always athletic. They have a new coach, and you can’t overlook them just because of what happened before. The past has no bearing on this one. We’re competing and giving great effort right now and that’s what I like to see.”
Banks County faces a Social Circle team that is off to a hot start outscoring its first two opponents (Stone Mountain and Cross Keys) 93-0. But those two teams are 0-8 on the season. The Leopards (1-2, 0-0 Region 8-2A) faced a pair of stout defenses in their first two games but unleashed their new wing-T offense for 50 points in a win over East Jackson last week.
Reid said the win last week was just what they needed heading into a region showdown with the Redskins (2-0, 0-0 Region 8-2A).
“We feel we played better the first two weeks than the scores indicated but we did make a bunch of mistakes that hurt us,” Reid said. “We cut down on some of those last week. That was a huge win for us so that the kids can see that the work they’ve put in is paying off.
“Social Circle is better than they were last season and we’ll have to get off the bus ready to play. The offense had 425 yards last week when we only had about 300 the first two games combined so I feel like we’re turning the corner.”