WASHINGTON, Ga. - Around here they understand the rule of five - but the only fifth Washington-Wilkes fans want to take is the state football championship.
That the Tigers got to the Class A semifinals in the Georgia Dome in 2005 isn't an entire surprise. Washington-Wilkes made it this far in 2000, and 1995, and 1985. They made up for bypassing 1990 with semifinal trips in 1986 through '88 as well.
Washington-Wilkes won four state championships in the 1960s, but the Tigers haven't been able to close the deal since. Six times they've reached at least the semifinals since 1985, and all six times they've come home without the trophy.
"Tremendously hungry," coach Russell Morgan said to describe the local appetite for a new champion. "You hear about it everywhere you go year round."
Morgan is in his third season as coach, but he's been a part of the program for 18 years. In his first year working for local legend Butch Brooks, Washington-Wilkes lost in the 1988 title game. They've gone 0-2 in finals since then, losing in 1995 to Elbert County and 2000 to Americus.
"It's been a long time," Morgan said. "We need one."
If this is the Washington-Wilkes team that can end the 38-year title drought, it will be all that more rewarding. Becoming only the second Tigers team to play in the Georgia Dome hasn't seemed like a sure thing in recent weeks. The players who won't be taking the field at 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon against Bowdon have made matters tough.
Two starters were knocked out for the season against Aquinas - linebacker/receiver Demont Gresham (knee) and running back Kelmetrus Wiley (ankle). Two more were suspended for disciplinary reasons - center Quarica Smith and linebacker/fullback Chris Dean.
At the high school level - especially Class A, where the best players often play both sides of the ball - losing four starters is like losing a quarter of your team. This quartet represented the top two tacklers (Gresham and Dean), leading rusher (Wiley) and leading receiver (Gresham). On many teams this could be a crippling spate of losses, but Washington-Wilkes has plugged along without them.
"The kids kept their focus on what our final goals are," Morgan said. "The team has refused to let any of that bother them. They didn't sit around and pout about it. You have hardship; somebody steps up and fills their shoes."
That perseverance has drawn the community closer to this team. Having quality senior leaders that people in Washington know and respect, such as Markeith Wiley and Casey Nickels, has enhanced the affection for this squad.
Robert "Skeet" Willingham, the local historian who literally wrote the book on Washington-Wilkes football, said the atmosphere is "absolutely euphoric."
The community, which held a pep rally on the town square the night before the Savannah Country Day quarterfinal victory, has supported this Tiger team as much as any of the more talented squads from the past.
"It's more than I saw even in 2000, when we had that magnificent team," Willingham said.
"This team has come through so much adversity. It's a more respected team this year. It's created a lot of admiration in the community."
Morgan can't go to the First Baptist Church of Washington on Sundays without the Tigers being mentioned during the service by the preacher.
The energy is pervasive. The only sound you're likely to hear in the Wilkes County seat this afternoon is the whirring of VCRs, taping the public television broadcast, as most folks will likely be in the Georgia Dome.
"I don't think there'll be anybody left," Morgan said. "It'll probably look like a ghost town."
Making it this far, Washington-Wilkes has already done some pretty impressive things for a school in the state's smallest class. Nobody knows for sure, but the Tigers might be the first Class A team in history to beat opponents in every classification above them - Putnam (AA), Thomson (AAA), Lakeside (AAAA) and Newton (AAAAA). Not many Class A schools would even attempt such a feat, preferring to stick with their own size for non-region games to set up better for tiebreaker scenarios.
With the strength of schedule Washington-Wilkes had, few expected the Tigers to be 11-2 at this stage with the only losses coming narrowly to Class AAA Hart County and region rival and fellow semifinalist Lincoln County.
"Looking at the schedule at the first of the year, you'd think if we go 5-5 and get a few rounds in the playoffs it would be a pretty good season," Morgan said. "It was huge for confidence beating Thomson (in the second week). It says a lot for our kids that we can step up with the big boys."
They'll have to step up again today against 12-1 Bowdon, which knocked off two-time defending state champions Hawkinsville last week.
Only then could the Tigers get a juicy rematch with the archrival Red Devils.
"I'll play anywhere," Morgan said. "Right now our ultimate goal is the state championship. I've addressed it every day. We're not just trying to get to the Dome. We're trying to win and get to the next level."
Class A Semifinal
- Washington-Wilkes vs. Bowdon
- 3 p.m. today
- TV: WCES (Ch. 20)
- Winner plays Lincoln County for state title
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