The No. 6 Braves (11-0) have already had their second undefeated regular season in school history and won the first playoff game since that same year in 2006. Now this year's Heard County squad is looking to be the first team to make it past the second round of the true state playoffs.
One other time a Heard County team played 13 games and reached the state quarterfinals. The difference is in that system the first playoff game was a region playoff, followed by the first round and the quarterfinals, meaning they only played two state playoff games.
"In 1990, that was back when they did a regional playoff before you went to the state playoffs. That team in '90 was able to play 13 ball games. We've only played 12 [games] the past 11 years. I think in order to move forward, you have to look at your program, what you've done and what you've accomplished in order to set goals of where you want to be," Heard County coach Tim Barron said.
Standing in their way is a No. 9 Spartans (8-3) team that Barron called one of the best, if not the best, teams the Braves have had to face all season. With an offense directed by the youngest of four brothers to all play quarterback at GAC in Rafe Chapple and senior running back Kyle Scales healthy after sitting out the first round, there are no holes in the squad.
What that means is the work the Braves have put in this week, while school has been out and classmates have been home with family or taking vacations, is that much more valuable.
"We're out of school, so we've been going every day at 9:45 [a.m.] We've brought them in to get a lift each day and then took them to the field. The exciting thing for us, the kids want to be there. They've been awfully focused in practice and that's something you worry about. When everybody else is on vacation and relaxing and taking it easy, these kids are going to work. For these kids to be as focused as they've been, we've been very proud of them," Barron said.
The Braves do have one thing going for them, in regard to logistics. In a week that has been anything but routine and a game that will be played without any school that day, they have been in that situation this year. Heard County opened this season on the road, but more importantly on a Saturday.
This time around, the Braves will be in the friendly confines of Staples Stadium, and they already know what works for their team to have them ready to play amongst some interesting circumstances.
"Everybody likes to be at home and on your normal routine on Fridays. We won't do anything out of the norm from what we've done in the past. When we played Callaway on a Saturday, we brought the kids in at 1 o'clock, got a quick workout in trying to wake their bodies up and then had walk-through and went to pregame. Being able to be on that routine will be big for our kids, but the biggest thing is we know the challenge we have in front of us and to have that fan support and fan base behind us is big for our kids," Barron said.
There's a reason this year's team has a shot to make school history. Yes, you can look at junior quarterback Jonathan Hunt or fellow juniors Ta Freeland and Tori Rogers. There's also sophomore Duranta Dunson, and a lot of unsung senior heroes leading the way.
But when it comes down to it — athletic ability aside — this squad just understands football.
"I think the biggest thing is the focus. They've been focused and their ability has picked up, too. This bunch right here is one of the best we've had come through. They have a better understanding of the game of football and a better understanding of what we're trying to ask them to do. With them being able to pick up on things easier, we've been able to throw more on them and that's allowed us to do some different things defensively and some different things offensively," Barron said.
They are now trying to make that next step — the state quarterfinals in a 32-team bracket and a chance to be considered with the elite of Class AA as one of only eight teams still standing the day after Thanksgiving.
"For us, to make that jump to be a true competitor at the state level, being at this level would put us up there with the ability to compete," Barron said. "It is what it is. We've had some good football teams to come through Heard County and obviously very proud of every one of those teams. But you always want to be moving forward and improving on what you've done in the past. That's where we're at. We're wanting to make that next step."
When a team gets to the state playoffs, there are only good teams left. And as you move deeper into the bracket, the better the teams get. That's why this will be one of the toughest games for Heard County and why it will be in that elite status if it is in the final eight.
"I think lining up against a team like GAC, that obviously is one of the top AA schools in the state of Georgia, if we can come out Friday night and find a way to get a win, that would be big for our program and big for our community," Barron said.