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Resilient Miller up to big task of facing No. 1 Clinch

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

COLQUITT -- Don't ever think the kids from Miller County are out of it.

Because they never do.

That's why they're here today, in the second round of the GHSA Class A state playoffs. And that's why they really don't care that the team they face Friday night is Clinch County, the No. 1-ranked team in the state.

"I told coach earlier in the year that I hope when we get in the playoffs that we play Clinch County,'' said Miller's Juwan Jones, a two-way starter who impacts a game from both sides of the line of scrimmage. "I like playing Clinch because it's always a great game. It's always very intense.''

There are other reasons, too.

"There's a lot of people who are on the bandwagon for Clinch,'' Jones said. "They think they are going to blow us out. They think there's no way we can win. We know they have a good team, but we feel like we can play with anyone. They beat us last year for the region title, and that left a bad taste in my mouth.''

Miller has a long history against Clinch and the two teams have played four times in the last three years, splitting those games. Miller beat Clinch 7-0 last year, then played Clinch for the region title.

The Pirates were winning, but Clinch put together a desperation drive and won the game in the finals seconds, 25-20.

But it's not revenge that drives Miller. It's a season-long dream of reaching the state final.

"We want to go to the Dome. We're going for a state championship this year,'' Miller County quarterback Caleb Cunningham said Wednesday. "We've been motivated all year.''

The Pirates (8-3) are a long way from the state title game, but they can take a huge step Friday night, and if they knock off Clinch (11-0) they will make a statement that will be heard all over Georgia.

No one gave Miller County much of a chance last week against state-ranked Calvary Day -- and on the road, at that -- as it appeared the season was over when Calvary Day jumped out to a 21-0 lead. But Miller came back to win, 34-21, in a game that says everything you need to know about coach Frank Killingsworth's kids.

"We might have lost a game or two we should have won, but we're right where we expected to be,'' said Killingsworth, who has been at Miller for 15 years. "Around here everyone expects us to go to the playoffs every year and win a game or two.''

That's where Miller has landed. The Pirates finished third in a heated Region 1-A race behind Mitchell County and Seminole County, but those two lost in the first round of the playoffs.

"We're the only team from around here left in the playoffs, and the only team from the region that's still playing,'' said junior T.T. Barber, who has had a big year at linebacker while gaining more than 1,000 yards as a running back. "The difference is that we have playoff experience. (The other teams) didn't have that playoff experience like we do.''

This is the fourth year in a row Miller has reached at least the second round in the playoffs, and if the Pirates make it to next week's quarterfinal round they will meet the winner of the Eagles Landing Christian Academy (11-0)-George Walton Academy (10-1) winner.

"We have gotten better every week,'' Cunningham said. "We're growing as a team, and we haven't stopped growing.''

That's Miller best weapon -- growth.

"The biggest surprise for me is how far we've come as a team,'' Killingsworth said. "I know we had some talent, but we've come a long way. We've had some kids step up. We don't have one person, we have a lot of kids stepping in and stepping up every week.''

Killingsworth has been able to make adjustments and Miller has changed along the way. Sure, the top players such as Jones and Barber have come through, but the coach points to role players such as David Sisson as the secret to the team's success.

"We moved Jarrett Rahymes from offensive guard to tight end, and we put Sisson in there,'' Killingsworth said. "He's a sophomore, but he stepped in and we haven't missed a beat. And I've rotated my inside linemen on the defensive line and all of those kids have stepped in and stepped up.''

Killingsworth uses three juniors -- Ty Sheffield, Jakell Roseborough, Jaquez Igles -- and sophomore Alex Anderson in those defensive tackle spots, moving them in and out to keep a fresh interior line. He has even moved them to defensive end at times. But they have carried the load, and the biggest reason Miller is here still alive right now is its defense.

"The consistency we've had is on the defensive side of the ball,'' Killingsworth said. "Our defensive coordinator Jason Houston does a great job, and the kids have bought into it. That's half the battle.''

Of course, the Pirates have Barber, who is a terror at linebacker, and Jones, who may be the best Class A defensive end in Georgia. Jones had 16 sacks last year. Those numbers are down, because every team double-teams him, but he has had a presence in every game, and he had two sacks last week against Calvary Day. Jones also runs the ball occasionally, and has gained more than 300 yards. And he may be the only defensive end in America who has run a punt back for a touchdown.

Barber and Marvin Grant (800 yards rushing) handle most of the running for a Miller team that went from a speed-first offense a year ago to a power running game this year. Cunningham has been a rock at quarterback. He doesn't throw much, but last week in the playoff opener he threw for 140 yards.

The whole team seems to be an ongoing work in progress, and the Pirates just keep progressing. Now they face the top team in the state. But there's no fear at Miller.

"We're very familiar with each other,'' Killingsworth said. "They run a lot of spread but they don't throw out of it. They run out of it. They have some tremendous athletes. If they get a step on you, it's over. Mitchell County has a couple like that. These old boys have about four like that.

"And on defense they don't have a number under 50 (which means all the defensive players have speed). They can run. They can run. They can run.''

The No. 1 ranking doesn't bother Miller because the Pirates know Clinch so well.

"What they do, I think we can handle,'' Killingsworth said. "They're the No. 1 team in the state, but there are only 16 teams left so no matter who you get they're going to be a great team. I tell the kids, it doesn't matter what you're ranked, it only matters where you are at the end of the year.''

The entire state may have Clinch as a big favorite, just don't tell anyone at Miller County.

"It doesn't bother us playing the No. 1 team,'' Cunningham said. "Everyone has a shot to win, and I think we have a good shot.''

Last week's dramatic comeback helped.

"We had to have the leadership to come back and win that game,'' Jones said. " I told them: 'I don't want it to end like this.' We never stopped believing we could win that game. We made a lot of mental mistakes, and that's why we lost the games we lost. We felt we should have won all of our games. The only way we're going to lose is if we beat ourselves. We know what we have to do. We have to execute our plays and stop the run against Clinch. That's it.''

All the talk and the rumblings on the Internet are about Clinch, but that just motivates Miller.

"Everyone is saying Clinch is going to do this and going to do that,'' Barber said. "I like a challenge. To be the best, you've got to beat the best.

"We came back last week and that's what this team is about. We don't get down because we believe in each other. A lot of young players have stepped up and other older players have stepped up to be leaders. We believe we can beat anybody who is on the other side of the ball.''