CAMILLA -- It hurt.
Ask any of the kids at Westwood and they will find a thousand different ways to say it, but it's a simple as that: It hurt.
That hurt, the pain and tears from last season are there -- still there -- tucked away deep in the back of their minds, buried for now under an avalanche of joy and retribution.
Maybe that's why this season feels so good, so sweet and so special, because Westwood isn't just winning, the Wildcats have come back -- all the way back from last year's bitter season to a joyride like no other.
"It was hard last year,'' Westwood coach Ross Worsham said. "We lost five games by three points or less, and then we lost in the playoffs to Thomas Jefferson, 28-24, after leading the game 24-21 in the final minutes.
"I remember after that (loss in the playoffs) talking to the kids about being so close and telling them about working harder. We talked about it after that game, and we mentioned it quite often during the workouts in January and in (the spring), constantly reminding them. They didn't forget it.''
So when they opened this season, Westwood had a different look, a different feel.
"After what happened last year, our kids got a little chip on their shoulder,'' Worsham said. "They're hungry.''
They have devoured this season. Just gulped it down, one game at a time. And nothing has tasted sweeter.
"I don't know if there are words to describe how good it feels this year,'' said John Vereen, one of four seniors on the team. "Being so close and knowing you could have won those games last year just made you work so much harder. It puts a drive in you. You don't want to be known as the team that almost won, but the team that won.
"During the offseason the coaches were always reminding us how close we were last year, and everyone put forth the extra effort, especially in the summer camp. You could see it.''
It has paid off. Westwood is not only 7-0, but the Wildcats are the No. 1-ranked GISA Class A team in Georgia as they go into tonight's game against Windsor Academy.
It didn't come easy. Westwood opened the season with not one heart-stopping finish, but three, winning the first three games in the final seconds -- all against bigger teams.
The Westwood Wonders beat Class AA Southwest Georgia Academy, 19-18, when Jake Edore kicked a 27-yard field goal with 1:20 left, and then followed that cardiac finish with a 20-17 victory against Class AAA Tiftarea when Vereen, who plays tight end and defensive end, caught a TD pass from Mason Worsham with 24 seconds left to win it.
Then came a 10-7 win against Class AAA Sherwood Christian Academy when SCA's T.J. Clay missed a 27-yard field goal with five seconds left.
"Winning that first game really changed our attitude for the whole year. We figured if we could pull that game out, we could could win all of them,'' said Edore, who has kicked three field goals, returned two punts for TDs, and has rushed for 503 yards and seven more touchdowns.
The Wildcats had to come from behind in all three games. They were 3-0 and life couldn't have been better. So they took a deep breath and then really took off.
"Winning those (first three games) was a real confidence booster,'' said Mason Worsham, a junior quarterback who has thrown completed 67 percent of his passes for 740 yards and 11 TDs and rushed for 340 and three more touchdowns. "It's just what we needed. That's what got the fire going. It jump-started our season.''
The Wildcats haven't come down. They have ripped through the Region 2-A season, outscoring everyone, 178-44 in four games, and have scored 48 in each of the last three.
"Last year it was a lack of maturity,'' Mason Worsham said. "Coming into this season we really worked hard. Man, it was hard to take (last year). After what happened last year, we just wanted it more. We had a good team last year, and came so close. Then we won that first game, and it was a close game. It felt so good to win that game. We started believing in ourselves. We can do this.''
And they have done it together.
"There's more team chemistry this year,'' Vereen said. "It's not one person having a big game, it's more of a team. It feels awesome.''
It is a one for all, all-for-one mentality, and that's made this season even more fun for the kids.
"It's such a different atmosphere,'' said Daniel Hays, a senior runningback and linebacker. "If one person messes up another person comes up with a big play. Everyone on the team has everyone's back.''
And no one is slowing down.
"I think the main difference is at practice,'' Hays said. "We work so hard in practice, and everyone gives it everything they have. The intensity level is up. Winning those close games, it gave us some energy. We knew those were big games, and when we won those close games we started believing more and more that we could win. We have confidence. We're not cocky, just confident. We know what we have to do to win.''
The Wildcats have a long list of heroes, including J.T. Edore, a freshman running back who has has rushed for 730 yards and scored 11 TDs this season. He gained 200 yards and was named The Herald's Player of the Week for his game against Randolph Southern as Westwood racked up 418 yards on the ground. Worsham threw only five passes that night, and that's probably the only reason Vereen's streak of catching at least one TD pass in every game ended at six that night.
Vereen has 27 receptions for 500 yards and seven TDs. Hays is one of the team's top linebackers and has also rushed for 400 yards, averaging 10 yards a carry. Westwood has weapons everywhere -- but the biggest weapon is the strength of this team's unity and belief in each other.
"The best part of this season is just seeing the team really come together,'' Mason Worsham said. "It's something I can't really explain.''
Just like the season -- the kids don't have words for it.
"It's really special,'' Jake Edore said. "And if we keep winning it could really be a special season. But we can't get ahead of ourselves. We have to go week by week. The coaches preach that to us. We go into every game knowing we face a quality team and we have to do our job.''
They have their feet on the ground, but the goal is high. They know they have a chance to win a state title, the first since the unbeaten teams of 2000 and 2001 won back-to-back titles and went 28-0.
"I remember those teams,'' Vereen said. "I know what winning the state title meant to this town.''
And now come the wonderful Westwood Wonders, writing their own story, a simple one of hard work, dedication and believing in each other.
"They're just playing good team football,'' Ross Worsham said. "They've got a bad case of wants. They really want to win.''
And something else.
"Coming off last year really made us hungry,'' Jake Edore said. "This team has a lot of heart.''