What ate at John Starr during the wee hours of Friday night into Saturday was that he believed Josey had never before been better prepared for a big game.
"Losing that game never once crossed my mind," said Starr of the Eagles' 42-20 loss to Thomas County Central Friday night in the Class AAA quarterfinals.
The defeat ended Josey's season at 11-2 along with its quest to repeat as state champs. For the Yellow Jackets (12-1), it was a major step toward returning to the glory it enjoyed from 1992-94, when it won three consecutive Class AAA titles.
"I felt so good, confident that we were prepared," Starr said. "Occasionally, we look at certain ballgames over the course of a season and think there's a chance we can lose if we don't play to our capabilities. (Friday night) we felt we had all the basics covered and thought we had the game plan that was gonna win it for us. It just didn't happen."
For the first time in two seasons, the Eagles were physically overmatched. After going 15-0 during the 1995 title run, Josey's streak of 24 straight victories ended in the regular-season finale when Thomson pulled off a 13-6. But Friday, Thomas County Central dominated Josey in the second half and handed the Eagles their most shocking lopsided loss.
"I learned a lot (Friday) night," Starr said. "I learned that in high school, you've got to be able to run the football. You have to beat people up between the tackles. They did that to us and we didn't do that to them."
Starr's game plan was quite the shift from Josey's style in the past. The fourth-year head coach decided to call on his two superstars - seniors Armark Tolbert and Deon Grant - more than ever before on offense.
Tolbert and Grant, who both start full-time on defense, had typically rotated at wide receiver for most of the past three seasons. Friday night, Starr used Tolbert and Grant at the same time for most of the game and was ready to let senior quarterback Jermaine Brooks air it out.
"I went in there with the plan to throw the ball 40 times," said Starr. "I wanted to get our two best players in there together and I guess I rode our horses too much last night. We went away from the team concept that got us there. We came here with a game plan and I was gonna stay with it. I watched the tape and saw it didn't work. A million times I watched it, and I wish now I had just kept it basic."
Tolbert caught five passes for 81 yards, while Grant made two receptions for 19 yards. The 6-foot-4 Grant's 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter made the score 18-14, but Brooks was unable to get Grant the ball enough for him to make a significant impact on offense.
"We went away from the run last night," Starr said. "We wanted to put the ball in our D-I guys' hands, but you have to have a great quarterback to complete those passes. Jermaine did the best he could, but I guess maybe we asked too much of him."
Brooks, who struggled early and overthrew several balls to wide open receivers throughout the game, completed 9 of 18 passes for 106 yards and threw two interceptions.
"We take it for granted sometimes that we have all these superstars," Starr said. "Jermaine is a good, average high school quarterback. He didn't have a bad night. Just an average night for a high school quarterback."
With 19 seniors graduating including Tolbert, Grant, tight end defensive end Percy Bland, lineman Shaun Williams and defensive back John Fielding - all expected to play on the Division I college level next season, the question now is where Josey goes from here.
"We feel good about next year," Starr said. "We've got a lot of good players coming back and some talent coming up from the JV, and we'll still be at a level where we can compete with anyone in the state in Class AAA and not be embarrassed.
"We're gonna shock people next year because they'll expect us to be down. We'll be good next year and great again the following year. Josey's going to win at least one more championship in the '90s. I truly believe that."
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