EVANS, Ga. -- Playoff chatter around Lakeside usually is reserved for the spring when the high school baseball season is at its peak.
It's almost a given that the Panthers will compete for the region baseball title and a berth in the state playoffs, but seldom does playoff talk emerge during the football season.
That has changed this year. For the first time since 1994, the Panthers' football team is a playoff contender. Only three times since the school opened in 1988 has Lakeside made the postseason in football. Those three berths came in 1992-94, the first two while playing in Class AAA.
The mission is simple Saturday night -- beat Butler at Lumpkin Road Stadium and make postseason travel plans.
"This is the biggest game I've ever played in," said Lakeside senior offensive lineman Matt Weaver. "This means everything to us. This is everything we've worked for since August."
Less than a month ago, the Panthers (5-3 overall, 3-1 Region 2-AAAA (A) were left for dead after a humbling 41-7 loss to rival Evans. One week later, state power Warner Robins pounded the Panthers 52-7 on their home field. After two straight losses, Lakeside players had seen enough.
"We came back that Monday (after losing to Warner Robins) and a couple of seniors told everybody we were going to turn this thing around or we were going to die," Weaver said. "We had Westside Macon that week, and we all stepped up and played the game of our lives.
"After that game, we became confident. We had Baldwin and then Central Macon, and we just took them out."
Lakeside coach Steve Crislip said the team's attitude has been different after beating Westside Macon, a team that lost in the second round of the state playoffs last season.
"There were a lot of seniors that came into this season expecting big things," Crislip said. "They either had to get with it or pull up the stakes. After that Westside game, our practices have been full of intensity."
It also helped the Panthers when versatile Brian Bratton returned from an ankle sprain and split end Tim Martin after battling mononucleosis against Westside Macon.
"A lot of seniors realized (after the Warner Robins game) that this is our last year of competing in Class AAAA and this is our last year of high school," said running back Tim Wixson. "We realized that we had to get down to business. Lakeside has always had good talent, we've just never gotten it together."
Because the Georgia High School Association re-classifies schools every two years, Lakeside's enrollment allows it to drop to Class AAA next season. The players would like nothing better than to earn a state playoff berth in their final season of competing in the Class AAAA level.
"I've played in a lot region championship games in baseball, but I've never played in something this big," Wixson said. "We know how long it's been since Lakeside made the playoffs. I would feel honored if we made the playoffs in my senior year. Maybe, we'll have a chance to turn this program around."
Reach Tim Morse at (706) 823-3216.
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