By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here’s a quick look at the semifinals. In a huge contrast, the public side has two rematches from this season while the private side has two first-time matchups. Also, we have another installment of “Coach Speak” with Irwin County’s Jonathan Lindsey:
No. 9 Charlton County (8-4) at No. 4 Irwin County (10-1-1). Irwin County won the first meeting between the Region 2 rivals, 29-26, in the regular season finale on Nov. 8, thanks to a 33-yard field goal in the final seconds by Eric Contreras. The all-time series between the two schools is 17-17. Irwin County had won the first 15 meetings from 1966 to 1989. Then Rich McWhorter took over in Folkston and Charlton County won the next 17 games from 1990 to last season, when Irwin ended the run with a 55-34 win in the regular season. Irwin County, located about an hour east of Albany, has improved steadily during head coach Jonathan Lindsey’s three years in Ocilla, going 3-7 in 2011 and 7-4 last season. He is trying to lead the school to the finals for the first time since 1997, and win the school’s second state title (1975). After finishing with a losing record (5-6) last year for the first time in his 24 seasons at Charlton County, McWhorter has righted the ship. Charlton County, located in southeast corner of the state, was last in the semifinals in 2006 when it went on to tie Dublin in the Class AA final.
No. 6 Hawkinsville (9-3) at No. 2 Marion County (11-1). Hawkinsville handed the Eagles their only loss of the season, 14-10, on Nov. 1. Still, Marion County, located in Buena Vista just outside of Columbus, won its third Region 4 title in the past four seasons. The Eagles have played 12 games in each of Mike Swaney’s four seasons. This is Marion County’s first trip to the semifinals. After a two-year absence from the post season, Hawkinsville, located just south of Macon, is back in the playoffs under second-year head coach David Daniell. The Red Devils are in the semifinals for the first time since they tied Clinch County in 2004 for their fifth state championship, after winning it outright in 2003.
No. 4 Calvary Day (10-2) at No. 1 Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy (11-0). The two teams have never met, but both faced Landmark Christian this season. Calvary Day, located in Savannah, lost to the War Eagles (30-22) in the season opener for the Cavaliers, while ELCA blanked Landmark 35-0. Calvary Day went on to drop its next game as well to Class AA Bryan County (40-29). But the Cavaliers have won 10 straight since, and are in the semifinals for the first time in school history. Head coach Mark Stroud, in his sixth season at the helm, has gone 37-9 after going 4-6 his first two seasons there. ELCA, located in McDonough, is the defending private school champion. Head coach Jonathan Gess has turned the program into one of the most dominant in the state. His current group of seniors has compiled an overall record of 48-4 thus far.
No. 3 Aquinas (12-0) at No. 2 Mt. Pisgah Christian (12-0). Aquinas, located in Augusta, had been a weak program, traditionally, until Matt Lezotte arrived in 2009. The Irish went 17-7 combined in 2011 and 2012, and longtime assistant James Leonard has taken the program to the next level in his first season, winning the school’s first region championship. Mt. Pisgah, located in John’s Creek, also won its first region title this season under head coach Mike Forester, who is also in his first season in charge. Prior to this season, the Patriots had not won more than six games in since joining the Georgia High School Association in 2006.
Coach Speak: Jonathan Lindsey, Irwin County
The coaching “tree” of Jeff Herron has spawned several “seeds” that are growing sturdy programs across the state. Bryan Love, in his first year at Westlake in South Fulton, piloted the Lions into the playoffs after they went winless in 2012. Franklin Stephens won two Class AAAA state titles (2008, 2011) in five seasons at Tucker and is primed to win a AA championship this season at Lamar County. Grant Chestnut is the offensive coordinator at the brand new program at Kennesaw State University.
And then there’s Jonathan Lindsey, who probably took the hardest construction job at Irwin County, located about an hour east of Albany. In the three seasons prior to his arrival in Ocilla in 2011, Irwin County was a collective 9-22.
“They were used to losing here and so we had to first come in a change the culture, the mindset of the players and the coaches,” Lindsey said. “It was all about commitment and hard work in the weight room, and going to coaching clinics and making sure the kids went to camps in the off season. I basically took what we did at Camden and brought it here. But mostly, it was changing the attitude here.”
The attitude adjustment hasn’t taken long. After going 3-7 in 2011, Irwin County went 7-4 last season, with wins over rivals Clinch County and Charlton County, two of the most tradition-laden programs in Georgia. Irwin County had lost 11 of 14 to Clinch County, and 17 in a row to Charlton.
“Those were big wins for the program,” Lindsey said. “It was great to see the hard work of the kids and the great support we’ve gotten from the administration pay off. Our kids started to believe they could win.”
But tough loss in the first round of last year’s public school playoffs to Trion (31-6) threw cold water on the party.
“It was the first time we hosted a playoff game in our new stadium since it was built in 2006, and the whole town was just so excited,” Lindsey said. “But we had a week off before the playoffs started and that first game was Thanksgiving weekend, and we lost our mojo, our focus wasn’t there. Trion came in here focused and determined and taught us a lesson.”
Irwin County got out of the gate quickly this season and was 4-0-1 when Clinch County came to town on Oct. 11. Irwin County led 17-0 in the third quarter, but mistakes and turnovers opened the door for Clinch County to come back. After Irwin County turned the ball over late in the game inside the Panthers’ 30-yard line, the game was over: 30-24, Clinch County.
“Again, we lost our mojo, lost the momentum and Clinch took it all,” Lindsey said. “But we pulled together as a team and got refocused, instead of coming and allowing things to unravel.”
That rededication to focus was evident a month later when Charlton County visited for the regular season finale. Irwin County trailed at halftime but rallied to win 29-26 on a last-second field goal. Lindsey’s team has not lost since the Clinch County game nearly two months ago.
Now, in order for the season to continue, Irwin County will once again have to knock off Charlton County.
“It was such a tight ball game last time,” Lindsey said. “It’s going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes and who doesn’t turn the ball over. We’re not going to go out and dominate Charlton. They’re too good and too well coached. But I’ve told our guys, if we play the way we’re capable of playing and don’t turn the ball over, we can beat anybody.”
Lindsey expects another raucous and supportive home crowd Friday night when Charlton County comes back to town, this time with a birth in the state public school finals on the line.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Lindsey said. “Our community loves these kids and has been so supportive of our program. It’s great. Everybody is so excited.”
Perhaps none more so than Irwin County’s biggest fan, Melissa Lindsey, the coach’s wife. She is cutting short an annual school trip to the nation’s capital with the couple’s oldest daughter, in order to be in her seat at kickoff.
“She’s going to leave our daughter up there with her middle school group and fly back Friday morning,” Lindsey said. “I’ll tell you what. She’s a bigger football fan than me. She could probably coach the team better than me, too.”