Eric Parker is building the same reputation for the name Burke County.
For the second consecutive year, Burke County is one step away from its first state championship appearance in 14 years. Winning at Gainesville tonight and qualifying to play for the Class AAA title at the Georgia Dome next week would be a huge step for the Bears and its respected head coach.
“I hope we can make it that last leg,” said Parker, who has taken Burke County and Laney to two state semifinals each but has never had the chance to win it all. “Having been to the semifinals last year, we came into this season with an expectation that anything short of reaching the finals wouldn’t be enough.”
That’s the kind of attitude Parker is quickly building in the state’s second largest geographic county. He believes that the biggest ingredient to sustained success is pride, and his teams are creating that with five consecutive playoff appearances since Parker took over in 2007.
“I tell the players to look at the eyes of the little kids who line the fences watching them walk onto the field,” Parker said. “That’s where the pride starts. Those little kids can’t wait until they can be Bears.”
Establishing that kind of institutional pride in a county as sprawling as Burke is no small feat. At 835 square miles, Burke’s footprint is only surpassed by Ware County in Georgia. Some players live as much as 50 miles apart from each other. It takes almost an hour to drive from the outskirts of Hephzibah and Blythe and fan out across the rural landscape to towns like Midville or Sardis on the other extremes.
“People don’t really know how many good athletes Burke County has,” said former Bear defensive lineman Cornelius Washington, a junior pass rushing linebacker with the Georgia Bulldogs. “Something (Parker has) been good at is getting those athletes to come out. We’re so spread apart on all different sides of the county. It’s hard to get everybody to come out and play.”
Parker credits the school’s commitment to extracurricular activities by supplying evening bus service home for every one of his players. But it’s the willingness of those players to go to such great lengths to participate that is most extraordinary.
“Some kids get on the bus at 6:15 in the morning and don’t get home until after 8 at night,” Parker said. “That’s a very big commitment.”
Just as he was able to get young men to buy in at Laney and turn the Wildcats program around with numbers, Parker has done the same in Burke. There are 120 players in the varsity and junior varsity football programs at Burke County, an increase Parker estimates at 60 percent from when he first arrived there five years ago to take over a program that hadn’t reached the postseason in four years.
“We’ve been lucky to have some good kids and they can make coaches look good,” Parker said.
That’s certainly true, but Parker is building something that should still be able to have success when there aren’t stars like Corey Mayton, Donquell Green and Montres Kitchens leading the roster. With Burke County’s middle and high schools consolidated on the same campuses, the Bears are learning the same system from the time they start playing. For seven years they’ll be taught by most of the same coaches who have been with Parker since the beginning, creating a continuity of voice that has been so successful for Larry Campbell in Lincoln County and worked for the late Luther Welsh in Thomson.
You can see the dividends this season with a class of seniors that has won more games (38) than any other in school history.
Parker is the eighth coach in 25 years since Burke County consolidated into one high school in 1987, and he already holds the best winning percentage (46-15, .754) of any coach who preceded him going back to 1947 when the 10-game schedule became the norm.
Only once before have the Bears ever made it to the Georgia Dome. They beat Clarkston in the 1997 AAA semifinals at the Dome before losing at Thomas County Central in Burke County’s only state title appearance under coach Mike Falleur.
At this stage of the season, there are no guarantees against the best opposition in the state. But Parker’s team has a chance to win the county’s first football title since Waynesboro High went 12-0 to claim the state’s smallest classification in 1957.
“They’ve been beating the bricks off of people,” said Washington of his alma mater he keeps close tabs on even as he tries to win a SEC Championship.
Those bricks are building something special that will last at least as long as Parker stays in Burke County.