Butch Brooks knew from Day One that No. 1 would be a nearly impossible to distinction to live up to.
"All the hype about this team was probably wrong from the start," said Washington-Wilkes' 17th-year head coach, after the preseason Class AA top-ranked Tigers dropped two of its first three games this season. "We lost nine very good seniors from last year's team, and had some big holes to fill this year. I think our kids knew and realized what was going on from the start, but I think our fans expected more and may have been hurt by it."
The lofty aspirations were based on the return of all-state running backs Ed Wilder and Nick Callaway, and wide receiver/defensive back Carl Norman for their senior seasons. Coming off a 27-0 loss in the Class AA title game last December, many believed that Wilder and Callaway would carry the Tigers to the elusive title.
Along the way, Wilkes ran into upset-minded Thomson, who beat the Tigers 9-7 in Week 2, and Elbert County, who beat them again, 18-6, the following week.
In the rematch with the defending Class AA champs - who moved up to Class AAA this season - the Tigers lost Wilder, their 6-foot-2, 270-pound fullback, for the season, with a torn ACL.
The Tigers rebounded two weeks ago with an impressive 24-0 win over Hart County and, after an off week, return to action ranked No. 8 this week to face Glascock County - a team that has been outscored 259-14 in four losses this season.
"Our youth is starting to come around," said Brooks, who has led the Tigers to the Class AA title game in 1985, '86, '88 and '95, only to settle for state runners-up each time. "We knew it would take a while but it's starting to come together."
Sophomore QB Marvin Pender is improving each week, while sophomore Kinte Gartrell has stepped in at fullback for the injured Wilder. Sophomore tight end Matt Bailey and junior linebacker Jontue Cofer have also taken great strides since the season began.
Wilder underwent successful knee surgery Oct. 9., and the injury has not hampered his status as one of the nation's top prospects at fullback.
"It's not hurting him at all because he will make a full recovery," Brooks said. "I'm sad for him because he's gonna miss out on the honors and awards this season. But Ed has made a major impact on this community and this team, and he's still there on the sidelines providing leadership. He's a special young man."