Steven Bench up and left Bainbridge in a lurch after spring practice, telling Bearcats head coach Ed Pilcher he was transferring to Cairo. Tonight, the two teams meet in one of the best rivalry games of the year in Southwest Georgia. (Photo by Clint Thompson/Thomasville Times-Enterprise)
BAINBRIDGE -- Ed Pilcher doesn't like talking about it. And neither do his players.
But tonight in Cairo, Bainbridge will have to confront a tough situation -- facing former quarterback Steven Bench, who unexpectedly left the program this summer for the rival Syrupmakers -- head-on when the Bearcats head into a showdown with their neighbors that's sure to be a little testier than usual this year.
Tonight's game renews a hotly-contested rivalry between the two Southwest Georgia schools. Since 2000, Cairo has won six of the last 10 meetings, though Bainbridge has won two of the last three at Cairo. The Syrupmakers, though, will be treating tonight as just another game on the slate -- despite all the off-the-field drama that actually goes deeper than Bench's departure.
"We don't really make the rivalries a big deal around here because the bottom line is we've still got eight other games on our schedule," Cairo coach Tom Fallaw said this week at practice. "We've got six that determine whether or not we go to the playoffs and have a chance to, ultimately, make it to a state championship. We convince our kids this is a process. Every week you go through the process getting ready for the next game."
But for Bainbridge -- whether Pilcher and the Bearcats care to admit it or not -- this game is likely more personal than ever. After all, when Bench left, he took his father -- the Bearcats' offensive line coach -- with him. The elder Bench, Steve Bench Sr., is now an assistant coach with the Syrupmakers.
Want To Go?
WHO: Bainbridge (1-0) at Cairo (1-0).
WHAT: Rivalry game.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
When The Herald caught up with Pilcher in the preseason, he was pointed in his comments about losing the team's assistant coach and star quarterback -- the latter of which is being courted by a host of Division I colleges. Pilcher said he didn't need to give a pep talk or huddle his team together after Bench left.
"Not a word was said. They knew the deal,'' Pilcher said in early August. "I didn't talk about it.''
Still, it's not Pilcher's favorite subject.
"It's a tough situation,'' he said of the Bench exodus. "I know one thing: Our kids are excited that (new starting quarterback) Quincy Fortner is there playing quarterback. Our team chemistry is the best I've seen since I've been here. A little adversity brings you together.''
Cairo, meanwhile, knows a thing or two about adversity itself.
The Syrupmakers, who were ranked No. 3 coming into the season in the Georgia State Prep Football Poll and stayed there this week after a 7-6 opening-week win against Drew, found out this week that they will be without the services of their top two running backs tonight.
Why ... do you ask? Well, it started out as a legal situation that has since filtered all the way down to the football program.
According to an article published Wednesday by the Thomasville Times-Enterprise, administrators for the Grady County School System said Tuesday that two Cairo players who were arrested in a robbery and assault case -- Damian Edwards, 18, and Drake Robertson, 17 -- were currently not on the team as the investigation continues. Cairo police allege that the two were involved in the assault and robbery of a Hispanic male on Aug. 21.
They were suspended from CHS for a week and returned to school at the system's CrossRoads program Monday, according to the Times-Enterprise.
Lucky for Cairo, Bench can run almost as well as any running back on the team.
Bench's rushing statistics haven't diminish since transferring from Bainbridge.
The Cairo QB may not be running the split-back veer offense anymore, but that didn't stop him from gaining a team-high 75 yards last week against Drew. The production on the ground didn't surprise Pilcher.
"You've got him over there and you know he's a runner. Why wouldn't they use him?" Pilcher said. "A lot of his runs were off scrambles off passes, though. Drew did a good job of covering receivers and (Bench) found a seam and ran."
Bench averaged five yards per attempt against the Titans. One of the top senior quarterbacks in the state, Bench completed 5-of-12 passes in his Cairo debut last week. He'll play a key role in the Syrupmakers attempt to win their fourth in the last five meetings with the Bearcats.
"We know what kind of player he is," Pilcher said. "He's a very aggressive player, a competitor. He's not going to change.He wants the ball in his hands, and he does a good job with it, too.
"He throws the ball pretty good. He's a good runner, too. He's got deceiving speed. He's a tough kid, too."
When Bench played for the Bearcats last year, Bainbridge was blanked by Cairo 14-0. Since 2003, Fallaw's first year as Cairo's head coach, the Syrupmakers have held a Pilcher-coached team -- including when Pilcher was at TCC -- to one touchdown or less three times. The Syrupmakers know what to expect with the veer offense. According to Fallaw, that's the secret to his team's success.
"The deal is our kids grow up playing them as seventh-graders, they play them as eighth-graders. They do the same offense down there and they play them as ninth-graders, JV and varsity,"Fallaw said. " ... By the time they're juniors and seniors, they can go out there and react instead of think."
Bainbridge will be ready. The Bearcats are 1-0 after opening up last week with a 16-12 win against another neighboring rival, Early County. They got three field goals from Daniel Provence -- a welcome sign for an offense that had trouble finding the end zone all night, and one that lost All-Star kicker Keenan Adams to graduation this past offseason when he signed with Colorado State.
Running back Terry Lewis scored Bainbridge's only TD last week on a 42-yard run.
Thomsville Times-Enterprise sports editor Clint Thompson and Albany Herald sports editor Danny Aller contributed to this report