They may go a bit unnoticed because of their isolation in southeast Georgia, but the Ware County Gators have proven to be one of the state’s most consistent contenders over the past decade in the second-highest classification.
Ware County has no state championships to its credit, but the Gators have made 11 consecutive playoff appearances, including nine in which they reached at least the second round, and have not had a losing season since 2001.
“We don’t really make a big deal out of it, but we do fly under the radar a little bit just because geographically we’re so far away from everybody,” Ware County coach Ed Dudley said. “It does enable us to develop, play some of the AAAAAA schools and get better early in the season.”
Last season, Ware County reached the state championship game for the second time in six seasons, losing to Gainesville 49-13.
“It felt like we were gutted with a big fishing knife,” Dudley said of the loss in the final. “We worked so hard to get there, just to blow up like that on the big stage. But we did get there. We can take that away from it. And there were some lessons learned that we can use if we make it back again.”
To begin the road back to another championship game, Ware County must find a way to make up for the loss of departing seniors Xavier Tobler and Jimal McBride. That search begins on Wednesday when the Gators open spring practice.
Tobler rushed for more than 1,700 yards on offense and was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution all-state linebacker on defense. He scored both of Ware County’s touchdowns in the state championship game. Tobler signed with Georgia Southern.
“Xavier is irreplaceable,” Dudley said. “He’s the best player I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached a few NFL guys. He made all-state on both sides of the ball, depending on which newspaper you look at, and you just can’t replace a guy like that.”
McBride, who signed with Middle Tennessee, was the AJC’s Class AAAAA defensive player of the year. The defensive lineman finished his senior season with 127 tackles, six sacks, 27 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two blocked field goals. He also had 51 knockdown blocks from his tight end position.
Dudley said another area of concern will be on special teams, where the Gators will be looking to replace Seth Starling, who was the first-team all-Region 3-AAAAA kicker.
But the foundation will be solid as Ware County returns 12 starters from last season’s 13-2 team.
“We’ve worked real hard in the weight room, just like everybody else in the state this time of year,” Dudley said. “And we’ve got 25 guys back who started at least one game last year. We’ve just got to fix the broken window panes. It’s not like we’ve got to rebuild the whole house.”
Ware County Gators
2012 record: 13-2, 7-0 in Region 3-AAAAA, lost to Gainesville 49-13 in the Class AAAAA championship game.
Starters returning: 6 offense, 6 defense
Key players lost: DL Jimal McBride, RB/LB Xavier Tobler, OL Sam Baptiste, WR Isa Lowe, PK Seth Starling, DB Cameron Gibson
Key players returning: QB Jammar Johnson, LB Dedrick Mills, OL Dakota York, DL Wayne Coleman, DB Cat Jenkins, RB/DB Quay Taylor
Spring practice dates: May 1-17
Aug. 30 – at Coffee
Sept. 6 – Charlton County
Sept. 13 – Brunswick
Sept. 20 – at Jenkins
Sept. 28 – at Windsor Forest
Oct. 4 – Glynn Academy
Oct. 18 – Richmond Hill
Oct. 25 – at Groves
Nov. 1 – Bradwell Institute
Nov. 8 – at Effingham County
Outlook: All-state players Xavier Tobler and Jimal McBride will be tough to replace, but Ware County will have 12 starters returning from a team that reached the Class AAAAA final in 2012. The Gators have won 10 games or more and reached at least the state quarterfinals in each of the past three seasons, and they will be the favorites to win Region 3-AAAAA in 2013. Look for rising junior RB/DB Quay Taylor and rising sophomore RB/LB Dedrick Mills to have breakout seasons.