On the eve of his fifth season at Thomson after a preseason clouded by off-field troubles, Bulldogs coach Butch Jacobs' hopes for a big year were brightened once again.
A strong performance by the Bulldogs in last Friday's jamboree at The Brickyard helped cushion the blow of the troublesome loss of one of the team's top returning starters on defense. More importantly, it redirected the focus of an experienced team that believes they are a favorite to win the Region 3-AAA championship.
The Dogs open the season at home tonight against Warren County, which finished the 1996 with a 4-6 record, 2-2 in Region 4-A East.
"When you get a chance to start a football season that way, that's always a good play to start," Jacobs said of senior halfback Marc Bailey's 70-yard touchdown run on the jamboree's first play from scrimmage. "I thought the night went pretty well for us."
Just a few weeks ago, though, the good nights for Jacobs and the Dogs were few and far between.
On July 24, McDuffie County Sheriff's Department deputy Shea Bunch responded to a call regarding suspicious activity, and arrested six Thomson High School students on misdemeanor possession of marijuana, after several bags of the drug were found in two cars the students were driving. Two of Jacobs' star seniors, Bailey and linebacker Marco Ramsey, were among the group.
Ramsey was kicked off the football team after he pled no contest under the state's first offender's program.
Bailey, selected to The Augusta Chronicle's preseason Dream 16 team, pled not guilty to the charges. Immediately following the incident, he was suspended from the football team. But the county dropped the charges against him after a drug screening showed that he had not used drugs, and Jacobs reinstated him to the team.
"Marc assured me he wasn't involved, and the drug test proves he was telling us the truth," said Jacobs of Bailey, who rushed for more than 900 yards last season as Thomson finished 8-3. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he knows better now what can happen when you get caught up in the wrong crowd."
Thomson will miss Ramsey, the lone returning starter at linebacker for Thomson, but the Dogs defense looked strong last Friday. The Dogs forced three turnovers in a 7-0 win over Lincoln County while allowing only one TD in three quarters. The Thomson offense did not commit a turnover.
Bailey, who refused to comment on the incident, added to his 70-yard TD another score for the Dogs in a 14-7 win over Evans, on a 70-yard option play. Quarterback Quincy Jackson picked up the first 15 of the 70-yard run before pitching to Bailey.
Another bright spot was senior Jack Jennings, the promising Warren County transfer who will replace Ramsey at outside linebacker. Jennings caused a Lincoln County fumble, and senior Terrell Roberts ran an interception 70 yards for a TD against the Red Devils.
The Dogs defense forced three turnovers in a 7-0 win over Lincoln County, and the Thomson offense did not commit a turnover on the night.
STABILITY: For the first time at Jefferson County, coach Charles Rutland has the luxury of team unity.
The longtime Louisville coach with a career 169-88-5 record took over the fledgling Warriors program in 1995 when Louisville and Wrens consolidated, and during the first two seasons, there were a lot of tensions between players who had once been such heated rivals.
"Being big rivals, the kids kind of disrespected each other the first two years," said Rutland, who is 10-10 with the Warriors after a 3-7 record last year. "This is probably the first time we feel that we are Jefferson County, that we've got everyone together. It's great the way they all get along so well. It's not Wrens versus Louisville anymore."
Though the Warriors compete in Region 4AA with defending state champion Washington County and perennial powerhouse Washington-Wilkes, Rutland has much cause for optimism in 1997. Jefferson County opens the season tonight at home against Region 3-AAA favorite Swainsboro.
The Warriors return one of the area's best linebackers, 6-foot-2, 225-pound Eric Boyd, and an outstanding quarterbacks in junior George Lane.
Boyd was in on 14 tackles last Friday night at Statesboro's jamboree, headlines an experience Warriors defense, one of the biggest, most physical groups Rutland has ever coached.
"Eric has matured so much, he's really become a leader," Rutland said of Boyd, who led the team with 110 tackle last season. "He's been a real role model, and is going to be a great college player."
Lane, who has started since his freshman year, completed more than 50 percent of his passes last year, throwing form more than 500 yards. The difference this year, says Rutland, is that the 5-11, 175-pounder has a bigger offensive line of five returning starters to protect him, and an improved group of receivers to throw to.
"George has matured real well, we really feel he's going to lead us to great things this year," Rutland said. "This is the best team I've ever had at Jefferson County, and I think maybe this is the year we start living up to our fan's expectations."
INSPIRED: For the past year, Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis hasn't been able to forget.
In Lewis' return to football last season after a 10-year absence, the Bulldogs opened the season against Athens Academy, and led 20-7 with 11:05 left in the game.
Harlem lost 21-20, and the Dogs' have fixated on avenging the heartbreak ever since. Their chance comes tonight, as Harlem opens the season at home against the Spartans.
"That's been in all our minds, we haven't been able to get that out of our minds," said Lewis, whose strapped-for-depth Dogs finished 1-8 last year. "I feel if we could have beat them, that would have made the difference in our season."
"We don't have enough kids at Harlem, and fatigue had something to do with it. Athens marched it down the field on us, our offense couldn't move it when we needed to, and the defense couldn't stop them. But I really think this crowd is better prepared to play a total football game this year, and we're real excited about getting it going."
MINUS LANNIS: Burke County second-year coach Mike Falleur was pleased after the Bears performance at last Friday night's jamboree in Statesboro, but the news wasn't all good.
Senior tackle Lannis Baxley, named to The Chronicle's preseason Dream 16, suffered a severely-sprained ankle, and may not play tonight as the Bears open the season at Screven County.
"He rolled it, and it's big-time swollen," Falleur said. "Right now, he's doubtful, he can't put any pressure on it."
But for the Bears, one of the early favorites to challenge for a Region 3-AAA title coming off a 7-3 season, a pair of first-year starters - junior defensive end Cornelius Scott and senior defensive tackle Kenny Bradley - got their first taste of live action last Friday. Their play in the jamboree helped to answer a few of Falleur's most pressing questions.
"We're real happy with what we saw," Falleur said. "Cornelius took over for (team sacks leader last season) George Evans, and he's the same type of kid who plays and hard did what we were hoping. Bradley is a big kid who played some last season, but didn't have the stamina. But he worked real hard to get in shape. and has come a long way."
HUGEE'S HOPES: Ivory Hugee says this is his most talented Hephzibah team in his ? years at the school, but the Rebels are still struggling to learn how to win.
"The thing that concerns me now is that for the first time in a lot of years, we have a very talented football team," Hugee said. "I don't know which ones are going to show up Friday."
They're as talented as anyone around but they have to play consistent. We're concerned about that, because Greenbrier is a good football team, a very good football team."
Hephzibah helped Greenbrier christen its football program, as the Rebels fell 35-14 in the season opener, a loss Hugee called an embarrassment. Now, he only hopes the Rebels can rebound from a 2-8 season last year and show up tonight at the Wolfpack's new stadium ready to play.
"Their opening their new stadium and they're going to be jacked up," Hugee said. We have to come off the bus focused and ready to play, we can't wait until the third quarter."