Entering the Class AAA state playoffs as the fourth seed means more than a five-hour drive for the Lions (5-5), who travel down to Blackshear to face the Region 1-AAA champions and No. 9 Pierce County (9-1). The trip somewhat resembles the journey the Central program has made from 0-10 to 4-6 to a playoff appearance this year.
"It's exciting. If 19 months ago, when we started this job here, and you said, 'All right. At the end of Year 2, you're going to be in the playoffs.' I think we all would have said, 'OK.' As far as progress goes, we're really excited. I think the kids are seeing the fruit of their labor, and that's very important," Second-year Central coach Grant Chesnut said.
Coming into the year, senior wing back/defensive back Stephon O'Neal knew this team had a chance to be something special.
"It's unreal. I had high hopes for this team. I knew from the start we had a group of guys that was going to put in a lot more work than we did last year. Last year, we had a lot of people do what they were supposed to, but this year it was more binding. We came out of the camp and had so much chemistry and that stuck with us," O'Neal said.
The senior class also knows how special this opportunity is on the eve of the 2012 playoffs. Since their freshman year, the team has gone 14-26 and is in the playoffs for the first time. Chesnut's arrival two years ago brought in a new work ethic and a postseason appearance this year makes it all worth it.
"It means a lot for our program. We haven't been there in a while, so we're excited. We want to go out there and get that 'W' because it could mean a lot for the future of our program," senior center Ryan Helton said. "We definitely put in the work. In the offseason, we trained for this and we're just glad it's time for it to pay off."
The Bears are back in the playoffs for the second straight year — with their second straight region title — after missing postseason play for three years. Led by junior quarterback Tyler Harris, the Pierce County offense averaged just under 40 points a game this season.
While Pierce County ended the season with a seven-game win streak — capped off by a 51-7 victory in the season finale — the Lions struggled toward the end of the season. With a chance at the No. 2 seed and a home playoff game, Central dropped a 41-21 contest against Chapel Hill, bouncing it to the fourth seed.
The regular season is now out of the minds of the Lions' players as they are refocused heading into the proverbial second season.
"Fortunately, we had an off week. We were able to come in and go to work. Honestly, there seems to be a new energy about us. I think the kids are seeing there's only 32 teams left and we happen to be one of them. Learning how to play long seasons is important. As far as where we're at with energy and excitement, there's a tremendous amount," Chesnut said.
Throughout the ups and downs of the regular season, the second-year coach saw his squad grow and develop. With several sophomores and some freshmen in key roles on both sides of the ball, not only does a playoff appearance help the program this year, but heading into next year, as well.
"They're excited to go. This year during the regular season was a tremendous growing year with all the young guys that played. We had our moments where we looked really good and other times when we didn't. The fact is the longer we can play, the more practice we get. The more practice we get and the more reps we get, the better we will become," Chesnut said. "In the big picture, this is a tremendous step for our program ... The experience and what our team is doing this week, it's a big step. Every part of it is us gaining maturity. Even the trip is helping our program."
The players are looking at the trip as an opportunity to get back some of the chemistry that helped them get out to a 3-0 start, including overcoming a 21-point deficit in the season opener.
"We always play the best when we're closest together. At the beginning of the year, we were close and really bonded. That was when we were playing really strong," senior linebacker Luke Eason said.
The 265-mile, five-plus hour bus ride is not ideal, but Chesnut is trying to make the most of it. As an assistant coach, Chesnut experienced some road trips and saw what they could do for a team.
"Obviously, we're doing the charter buses and we're making a day of it and having some stops along the way. We did this a lot at Camden [County]. So I was able to learn a good amount about traveling long distances to play. I thought coach [Jeff] Herron, I was always impressed with how he handled that. We're doing the best we can to make the best situation for ourselves. Again, it's not an ideal situation. But if we want to build this program into one that goes deep in the playoffs, there's going to be that opportunity where you've got to travel," Chesnut said.