Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

DAMASCUS -- Look who's here.

It's the kids from Southwest Georgia Academy. You know, the ones who weren't going to win half their games, the group that was supposed to stand in the shadows.

Well, they're in the spotlight now.

The Warriors are not only in the postseason, but will be at home to open the first round of the GISA Class AA state playoffs against Robert Toombs Christian Academy on Friday night.

They got here with some grit and heart, and with an old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-go-to-work attitude.

They had no choice. No one believed in them.

"Everybody wrote us off,'' said Carson Ray, a senior who plays center and defensive end. "No one thought we would do anything this year because we lost (our talented) senior class last year.

"Nobody gave us a chance.''

SGA lost a ton of seniors, literally a ton, because last year's team wasn't just talented, it was huge -- averaging more than 250 pounds along the front line.

This year's team?

"This is the smallest team I've had here,'' said SGA coach David Bell, who has been coaching at SGA for 16 years, including the last six as the head coach. "They're small, but this is the hardest working team I've ever had. They just get after it.

"You would want this bunch to storm Normandy Beach with. And they wouldn't care if they had a spoon, a knife or whatever -- they would get after you. There's never a doubt they will play hard. It's been a lot of fun coaching them.''

Ask the Warriors, and they'll tell you: They just got tired of hearing everyone tell them they couldn't win.

"I think people were hoping for a winning season at best, like 6-4,'' said Troupe Tabb, a senior fullback and linebacker. "It's because we're so small. We only have two or three players over 200 pounds. Last year, the team was really big. The reason we're winning is that we have a different attitude. We just get after it.''

Troupe's cousin, Taylor, couldn't agree more.

"We have to win,'' Taylor said. "I think we surprised everyone else, but we didn't surprise ourselves.''

It was a strange ride. The Warriors, who have nine seniors, were losing 14-0 in their opener to Tattnall Square when lightning canceled the game. The next week they lost a heartbreaker to Westwood in the final seconds, 19-18.

"It was terrible,'' Troupe Tabb said. "It just felt terrible after that loss to Westwood. We felt like we better get our act together.''

They did. It appeared everyone was right until Week 3 when they beat two-time defending Class A state champ Terrell Academy, 19-6. They never looked back, winning eight in a row to win the Region 2-AA title.

"Every game we played I think our fans thought we were going to lose,'' said Cody Buckhalter, a senior receiver and cornerback. "They would look at the other team and see how much bigger they were than us, and think we were going to lose.''

If there was a turning point it came against state-ranked Valwood, which was unbeaten at the time. SGA took over early and won the game, 35-21, removing all doubt about what this team was all about.

"That's the game that really gave us confidence,'' Troupe said. "You could see it during the game. We were up 14-0 and we kept stopping them. They found out our defense was better. After that game we had confidence. We were thinking, 'We're just going to run the table and get a ring,' "

The table has been run: The Warriors are 8-0 over the last two months, outscoring opponents, 283-129. And it could have been worse. Bell believes his defense could have had at least two shutouts along the way, but he substitutes freely once ahead.

The defense swarms everything in sight, and the offense has so many weapons, including the Tabb Boys. Despite a nagging shoulder injury, Taylor has been spectacular, gaining 1,362 yards on just 166 carries (that's an 8.21 average) and scoring 16 touchdowns. He also has caught 12 passes for 222 yards and two TDs, and he has been a terror on defense. All this while nursing a shoulder injury.

"By the time the game is over -- when you look at him picking up fumbles and returning them, catching passes and running the ball -- Taylor usually ends up with about 200 yards a game,'' Bell said.

Then there's Troupe, who has gained 614 yards on 101 carries (that's a 6.08 average) and scored nine touchdowns. He has caught nine passes for 106 yards and a TD.

The Tabbs have accounted for 2,294 yards of offense, and that doesn't count the kick and punt returns or returns after interceptions and fumbles.

Dillon Driver, a junior quarterback, runs the show, and he seems to get better every week. Driver has completed 47 of 83 passes (56 percent) for 683 yards and seven TDs and he has rushed for 500 yards and eight touchdowns. Buckhalter (14-for-178) and Allen Gray (10-for-153) are the leading receivers.

The Warriors might not have size but they're quick, and they have something else.

"We've got a lot of heart,'' said senior Preston Messer, who weighs about 160 pounds and plays on both sides of the line. "Everybody said we were too small, but we proved it by shutting people down.''

Bell sees it every day. He said he saw it last summer when his kids would show up at 6 a.m. to lift weights.

"They all lifted a lot more than you would have expected,'' Bell said. "This is not the most talented group we've had. But they have a drive to them. They're playing over their heads.

"They just don't like to lose. Westwood has a lot of grit, too, and when we lost that game it helped get us back on track. They didn't like losing. It really motivated them.''

Five of the seniors on this team have brothers who played in a state title game for the Warriors, and every kid at SGA knows the program has won six state crowns. They also know the last one was back in 1998 -- just about the time they were playing flag football together.

"We started talking about winning the state title when we were in third grade,'' Taylor Tabb said. "We've been playing on the same team together since then. We won the (rec league) title when we were little and the JV title when we were in eighth grade. We all know this is our senior year and this is something we have wanted for a long time.''

It shows.

The nine seniors -- Davis Chambless, Jameson Burch, Drew Sheffield, Ray, Buckhalter, Gray, Messer and Taylor and Troupe Tabb -- do just about everything together, and meet twice a week for dinner. On Wednesdays, the entire group goes to dinner at one of the player's homes. It alternates every week. On Thursdays, the group goes to Blakely and eats out, and then goes to Gray's house to watch college football.

"They're such a close group of kids,'' Bell said. "They stick together. They hang together. They really like each other and do everything together. When you get a group like that, there's an accountability on the field because they're close. They don't want to let each other down. They play hard for one another.''

Bell has had to move and shift players all year to find the right mix.

"It seems like every game someone different steps up,'' Bell said. "Taylor hurt his shoulder (against Terrell) and we've had some linemen out with injuries. We've had to jumble people around, and it took us a while to find the right mix. But it doesn't matter where we ask them to play, they will play there. They are selfless.''

And here they are, this selfless bunch of kids who were too small and too deaf to hear their critics, and too close not to let each other down, and just too determined to make this season -- the one they talked about when they were 8 years old -- even better than anyone could have imagined.

"You can't look at our record and bad-mouth us now,'' Taylor Tabb said. "You can't say we don't have a shot to win a state title. "To win state would mean everything. It's something we've been talking about and dreaming about for a long time.''