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Eagles still soaring

Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon, left, celebrates as Old Dominion’s Prentice Gill walks off the field during last Saturday’s FCS second-round playoff game, which the Eagles narrowly won, 55-48.

Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon, left, celebrates as Old Dominion’s Prentice Gill walks off the field during last Saturday’s FCS second-round playoff game, which the Eagles narrowly won, 55-48.

BRUNSWICK — Backers of Georgia Southern University find their Eagles just three wins away from a national title, sitting pretty in the Elite Eight of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Georgia Southern hosts the University of Maine today at Statesboro, with the winner meeting the Lehigh-North Dakota State winner Dec. 17 for a chance to play for the FCS Championship in January.

And despite living among a very large contingent of University of Georgia Bulldog fans and a good many Georgia Tech fans, Georgia Southern fans say they don’t mind so much as long as their team keeps giving them something to cheer about.

“I think we do get somewhat overlooked, but being in the FCS and having a championship (tournament), we’re still having an exciting time, and everybody else is just waiting on their bowl game,” said Brunswick resident and GSU graduate Jay Sanders. “As long as we keep winning, we have a few more games to watch.”

The Georgia Southern Eagles, winner of six Division 1-AA National Championships from 1985 through 2000, are making a deep playoff run for the second straight season after missing the playoffs the four previous seasons.

Georgia Southern’s revival can be traced to the hiring of head coach Jeff Monken, a longtime assistant coach under Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, also a former Georgia Southern head coach.

“Monken came in last year and was able to get the team to the semifinals in his first year,” said Terrance Haywood, McIntosh County Academy athletic director/intervention specialist and a GSU graduate. “And he’s doing this with kids he didn’t even recruit. To be able to come in and, in one year, be able to get to the semis, that set the bar pretty high, and they seem to be rising to that challenge.”

The revival has Georgia Southern graduate Joan Harris longing for the days she attended all the games at Paulson Stadium on the Statesboro campus.

“I don’t get to the games any more, but I sure do enjoy keeping up with them,” said Harris, a retired schoolteacher and St. Simons Island resident. “We do get overwhelmed (by Georgia and Georgia Tech fans), but I don’t mind it, because I’m a Georgian, and I think your state allegiance is to your university team. But I love Georgia Southern. That’s my school. I don’t feel left out. I’ll let those crazy Bulldog fans act crazy, and I’ll just sit there and laugh at them.”

Georgia Southern finished 10-5 a season ago, going 7-4 in the regular season, before falling, 27-10, to Delaware in the national semifinals. This season, GSU won the Southern Conference Championship for the first time since 2004 and climbed to the top of the FCS national rankings for the first time since 2001.

The Eagles went 9-2 in the regular season and climbed back to No. 2 in the polls, receiving a bye in the first round of the FCS playoffs. They defeated Old Dominion, 55-48, last week in the second round. Three more victories would give the Eagles their seventh national title.

Sanders says he is not surprised at his favorite team’s return to glory. He says the Old Dominion game was too close for comfort, and the opponents won’t get any easier if the Eagles advance.

“This weekend, if we can remain turnover-free and play good defense, we’ll have a chance. Old Dominion was too close. I was talking with a friend who said if we play against a good passing team, we are going to have trouble. But I was glad to see we came out on top after all those touchdowns.”