Ever since they went unbeaten in eighth grade, Terry Lewis — now a senior — has been 
hearing how special he and his teammates in that class would be one day. Well, that day is now, and Lewis — who enjoyed a breakout junior season during which he rushed for almost 1,100 yards — is ready to lead an experienced Bainbridge team to the playoffs and beyond. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Ever since they went unbeaten in eighth grade, Terry Lewis — now a senior — has been hearing how special he and his teammates in that class would be one day. Well, that day is now, and Lewis — who enjoyed a breakout junior season during which he rushed for almost 1,100 yards — is ready to lead an experienced Bainbridge team to the playoffs and beyond. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Counting down to kickoff

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s in-depth look at BAINBRIDGE, CRISP COUNTY and CRISP ACADEMY marks the 15th, 16th and 17th of 26 prep football season previews that will appear in the sports section during the next week and a half as we count down to Kickoff 2012. On Friday, we’ll take a closer look at WESTWOOD and TERRELL COUNTY. Enjoy!

BAINBRIDGE — The eighth-graders have grown up — literally.

And now that they’re seniors, Bainbridge might just have the best team its had since Ed Pilcher took over five years ago.

“When I first got here, these seniors were in seventh grade. They were the rising eighth-graders the first spring I was here,’’ Pilcher said. “They were aggressive. They got after it. I just knew (one day) it would be a good group.’’

Everybody in Bainbridge knew about these kids. They went undefeated as eighth-graders, and all the football fans in town couldn’t wait for this group to reach the varsity level. They showed up a year early last season when Bainbridge faced a massive rebuilding effort.

No problem. The junior class took over and Bainbridge, which was expected to have a losing season, went 8-2 in the regular season and the two losses were to Northside, Warner Robins and Warner Robins, which both made it to the GHSA Class AAAA state semifinals.

In the new region alignments, Bainbridge no longer has to play those two state powers and could be the favorite in Region 1-AAAAA.

Now Pilcher is loaded with returning starters — seven on offense, seven on defense, and his kickers are all back. He has five returning senors who are starters on the offensive line, and the Bearcats bring back almost 1,800 yards in rushing in their two running backs. Terry Lewis gained 1,066 yards and was a Herald All-Area player, and Damian Bouie gained 680 yards.

And yes, they’re both a part of that rising eighth-grade class that is hungry as seniors now.

“We’re trying to go to the championship game in the Georgia Dome this year,’’ Lewis said. “We’re hungry and we’ve got to eat.’’

What else did you expect from a group that was thrown in the fire last year and came out with one of the best seasons in Southwest Georgia?

“They did a good job as juniors last year,’’ Pilcher said. “They had to overcome a lot of adversity. They really came together. Under those circumstances, we had to play a bunch of young kids, and they went 8-2 as juniors. Now they’re back, and we don’t want it to be one-and-done. We want a better year. I wouldn’t call it complacency, but you’re coming off that good year and you just want to make sure they’re not satisfied. You want to make sure they’re hungry.’’

Pilcher has 33 seniors, including 14 starters, and he likes the way this group approaches the game.

“I would say that the first year I was here we probably had better athletes overall, but as far as playing as a team, this is the best team I’ve had here,’’ Pilcher said. “As far as doing what we ask them to do, this is the best team I’ve had here.’’

The best team in Bainbridge history was in 1982 when the Bearcats went 14-1 and won the state title. The 1993 team went 10-3 and made it to the state semifinals, but no other team at Bainbridge has ever gone beyond the first round. Last year’s junior bunch almost made it, but after leading, 14-7, they lost a tough 21-14 game to Ware County in the first round of the state playoffs.

The biggest question this season is at quarterback, where two juniors — Preston Norris and Aaron Callaway (who are both 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds) — are battling for the job. Pilcher said Tuesday in advance of Friday’s opener at home against East Gadsden (Fla.) that he has no idea who will start under center; he might use two quarterbacks at the beginning of the season.

“Preston has been there and Aaron is a little more athletic, but they’re both good players,’’ Pilcher said. “Right now, we just want to be sure. We might change from week to week. We’re going to see what happens.”

Pilcher loves the veer. He’s got the running backs to pick up the yards and an offensive line that returns everyone. Right tackles Tim Shaw (6-2, 275) and center Cole Granada (5-10, 190) are the anchors, while guard Andrze Jeglinski (6-0, 250), tackle Tate Griffin and Madison Malone (5-9, 170), who started last year at guard and is moving to tight end, give the Bearcats five returning starters on the line.

They even a have nickname.

“We’re the GOOL Squad,’’ Shaw said. “It stands for ‘Get On Our Level.’ We have a lot of experience, and that means a lot. Last year, everybody was putting us down, saying we weren’t going to do anything. Now we’re back, and we’re still hungry. We know we can be better than we were last year. We have high expectations. We want to go deep in the playoffs.’’

Last year’s loss still stings.

“Losing in the first round last year stuck with us,’’ said linebacker B.J. Cheatem, who is the leader on defense. “We’re going to be better. We have a lot of experience coming back, and this isn’t just a football team. We’re close. Half of us are related — cousins or some other way — and the whole team is a family. That loss in the playoffs stayed with us, and we came back with the attitude that we’re going to be able to do it this year.’’

Cheatem, who led Bainbridge in tackles last year, leads a defense that returns all three linebackers, three players in the secondary and Darryl McGee (6-1, 230), who was a First-Team All-Region player and made The Herald’s All-Area team.

McGee is big, quick and powerful. He runs a 4.8 40-yard dash and gives teams fits.

“They’re all fast,’’ Pilcher said of his defensive players. “Cheatem is the leader and McGee is our best lineman. He’s smart and he’s tough. Cheatem is all over the field making plays. We should be pretty good on defense.’’

McGee, who had 68 tackles and six sacks last year, said he couldn’t believe the kids who were in eighth grade were now seniors.

“It’s amazing we are still together,’’ he said. “This team is very close. We hang out together off the football field.

“I believe we will make it past the first round in the playoffs. We’ve been told since we were in eighth grade that we would be one of the best teams. People in the community, coaches — we heard it from a lot of people. Now we’re seniors, and it’s our time to do it.’’

The secondary is led by Dontavius Baulkmon, a 6-foot, 180-pound cornerback with 4.5 speed.

“He plays all of it,’’ Pilcher said. “I’m excited about the defense. I’m excited about all of it. We’ve got a chance to be pretty good, (but) we’ve got to get better week to week.’’

Carmeron McDowell and George Clemmons are also seniors who return in the secondary, where Bainbridge is fast and physical, and Marshall Mack and Jamez Harris return at linebacker.

“I like our defense,’’ said Smith, who runs against it every day in practice. “Last year, we had a great defense and we have a lot of experience coming back this year. They work hard and they’re disciplined. We had to take it in our hands last year, and now we are seniors.

“It’s our time.’’

Bainbridge’s 2012 season outlook

MASCOT: Bearcats.

HEAD COACH: Ed Pilcher (fifth season at Bainbridge with 23-19 record, 27 seasons overall as head coach with 17 years at Thomas County Central and five years at Early County; 234-83-1 career coaching record).

2011 RECORD: 8-2.

ASSISTANT COACHES: Leonard Guyton (offensive coordinator/QB); Jody Sprinkler (OL); Larry Cosby (WR); Tom Wheeler (TE/OL); Kelvin Cochoron (LB); Brian McCorkle (DT); Scott Miller (DE).

RETURNING STARTERS: Terry Lewis (Sr., DB; Damian Bouie (Sr., RB); Tim Shaw (Sr., OL); Andrze Jeglinski (Sr., OL); Tate Griffin (Sr., OL); Madison Malone (Sr., TE); Cole Granada (Sr., C); B. J. Cheatem (Sr., LB); Darryl McGee (Sr., DE); Marshall Mack (Sr., LB); Jamez Harris (Sr., LB); Dontavious Baulkmon (Sr. DB); Carmeron McDowell (Sr., DB); George Clemmons (Sr., DB). Daniel Provence (Jr., K).

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Preston Norris (Jr., QB); Aaron Callaway (Jr. QB).

PLAYERS IN COLLEGE OR HIGHER: Ray Dominguez (OL, Green Bay); Malcolm Sheppard (DL, Tennessee); Rohan Gaines (Fr. DB, Arkansas); Quincy Fortson (Fr., DB, Albany State); Daniel Bivens (Jr., LB, Montevallo State); Shamaii Wilburn (Fr., DT, Dean CC); Tarow Barney (So. DT, Northwestern Mississippi CC); Andrew Conner (So., LB, Dean CC).

2012 Bainbridge Bearcats’ schedule

Friday vs. East Gadsden (Fla.), 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 7 vs. Cairo, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 at Early County, 8 p.m.

Sept. 21 vs. Westlake, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 at TCC, 8 p.m.

Oct. 12 at Harris County, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 vs. Hardaway, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 at Northside, Col., 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 2 vs. Dothan, Ala., 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 9 vs. Lee County, 7:30 p.m.

-- BOLD denotes GHSA Region 1-AAAAA game