‘It’s our time now’

Lee County quarterback Matt Mears threw for more than 2,300 yards last year and is one of several seniors ready to bounce back from a 2011 season when the Trojans finished 4-6. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Lee County quarterback Matt Mears threw for more than 2,300 yards last year and is one of several seniors ready to bounce back from a 2011 season when the Trojans finished 4-6. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Counting down to kickoff

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s in-depth look at LEE COUNTY marks the 22nd of 26 prep football season previews that will appear in the sports section during the next week as we count down to Kickoff 2012. On Tuesday, we’ll take a closer look at DOUGHERTY. Enjoy!

LEESBURG — It’s their time now, their team and their turn to help Lee County reach the next step.

That’s what the seniors on this year’s Lee County football team face. It’s what they embrace.

“We want to be part of the legacy,’’ said receiver Casey Hightower, a senior who started in the secondary when he was a sophomore.

Hightower and many of the seniors on this team saw playing time as sophomores, and they saw things change for the Trojans, who will be coached by Dean Fabrizio.

“When we were sophomores it was like the whole program just flipped,’’ said quarterback Matt Mears, a senior who was the backup quarterback as a sophomore and threw for more than 2,300 yards last year. “And since our sophomore year we are a lot better, and the football team is playing so much better than in the past.’’

When this group was sophomores, Lee had only its fifth winning season in its history, going 7-3 in the regular season while reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

Last year’s team missed the playoffs with a 4-6 record that included two close losses in the region that could have gone the other way.

Now the Lee kids are talking about getting back to the playoffs and adding to the turnaround that started two years ago.

“We’re expected to win now,’’ Mears said. “It’s not like we’re hoping to win. Everyone expects us to win now. It’s our time now.’’

To see how far that attitude has come, consider this: When these seniors were in eighth grade no team at Lee County won a game. The varsity football team, the junior varsity, the ninth-grade team and the eighth-grade team all went winless.

Now talk about reaching the playoffs is routine.

And why not? Lee County not only returns 10 starters, including almost all the skill position players, but moves out of what was arguably the toughest Class AAAA region in the state.

The Trojans are now in Class AAAAA with the new GHSA classifications, and will play in Region 1-AAAAA, along with Bainbridge, Hardaway, Northside Columbus, Thomas County Central and Harris County. They no longer have to face state powers Northside Warner Robins and Warner Robins, which both reached the state semifinals last year.

“We still feel like it’s a tough region, but it has definitely eased up after playing Northside Warner Robins and Warner Robins. That other region was (brutal),’’ Fabrizio said. “But it will definitely be a tough region.’’

Still, Fabrizio believes this year’s team can see the postseason.

“We want to get back to the playoffs,’’ he said. “Two years ago we made the playoffs and felt we let it slip away last year. We want to get back.’’

Fabrizio’s wide-open offense took a big hit during the first week of practice when Josh Cabrera, who led Lee in receptions (69), yards (954) and touchdowns (13) last year, moved to South Carolina, where his father, a career Marine, was stationed.

“Yeah, it’s a big loss, but those things happen,’’ Fabrizio said. “Other players are going to have to step up.’’

That’s the overall attitude at Lee, where Cabrera’s departure didn’t change the way the kids feel about the season.

“It’s not going to hurt us,’’ said Hightower, who caught 31 passes for 400 yards while playing about half of last season because of injuries. “We definitely wish he was here, but we can’t do anything about it. We just have to come together as a team. I think we’ll make the playoffs because we are a team that is together, and we have more experience this year.’’

Mears said: “It hurts that he left, but we can’t sit around and hang our heads about it. We have other guys who will step up.’’

Mears (5-11, 175) put up big numbers (2,338 yards and 22 TDs) last year, but is battling Stephen Collier, a 6-4, 210-pound junior, for the starting quarterback spot.

“We believe in competition,’’ Fabrizio said. “Whoever gives us the best chance to win will play, and we might even play two quarterbacks if we feel that gives us the best chance to win.

“Matt had a real good year for us last year, and we’re expecting him to have a good year this year, but Stephen’s got a lot of ability, too. He’s a big kid with a strong arm. It’s a luxury to have two quarterbacks.’’

Both QBs will have targets, including Hightower and receiver Andrew Stroud (6-3, 210), one of Lee’s top baseball players. Stroud, who will also punt, played both ways last year but will strictly be a receiver now that Cabrera has left.

Kenneth Hurley (5-8, 170) may be the key to the offense, which spreads the ball all over the field. Hurley is Lee’s tailback/slotback player. He led the team in rushing as a junior with 618 yards on 97 carries (6.3 average) and he also had 200 yards in receiving. He was a starting linebacker as a sophomore for Lee’s turnaround team before moving to the backfield last year.

“I want to have a big year,’’ Hurley said. “I want to break the Lee County record for rushing. I don’t know what it is, but I want to break it.’’

Fabrizio, who likes the pass more than the run, wants Hurley to be a big part of the offense.

“We look for him to get the ball a bunch,’’ Fabrizio said. “We’re going to throw to him, too. He should have (over 1,000 yards in rushing and receiving).’’

The Trojans also bring back Tavarious Hall, who was the team’s second-leading rusher a year ago with 200 yards on the ground. If Cabrera would have returned Lee County would have had all its skilled players back.

There are also three underclassmen who will be in the offensive mix, and Fabrizio expects big things from sophomore receiver J. Q. Qimbley and freshmen Trey Eafford, who was the Albany area 100-meter dash champion as an eighth grader, and Devontae Seay, who was the Albany area 400-meter champion as an eighth grader. Seay’s older brother, Sanford was the leading receiver for Lee two years ago.

“They are two pretty talented kids,’’ Fabrizio said of the freshmen.

The Trojans have plenty of offense, and Fabrizio believes this could be Lee’s best offensive line since he came to the school four years ago.

Center Gavin Lee, a 6-1, 210-pound senior, and guards Shabari Jones, a 5-11, 275-pound junior, and Chance Green, a 6-1, 240-pound senior, all started last year, and Robert Hatcher, a 6-1, 310-pound senior, will also see plenty of playing time on the line. The two newcomers are junior Jesse Freeman, a 6-3, 310-pound tackle, and freshman Chris Barnes, a 6-4, 265-pound tackle.

“This is the most size and the strongest offensive line we’ve had since I’ve been here,’’ Fabrizio said. “We feel they have a chance to be the best offensive line we’ve had.’’

The Trojans bring back four starters on defense, including Willie Butler, a 5-11, 240-pound defensive end, and nose guard Colton Grove, a 5-10, 210-pound senior who is one of Lee’s top wrestlers. Dextric Green, a 5-9, 165-pound sophomore safety who started as a freshman, and Kevin Hopkins, a 5-8, 160-pound junior cornerback, return in the secondary. Kaleb Strickland (6-3, 210) played a lot at defensive end last year, Jalen Bush (5-8, 150) saw playing time in the secondary, and Jacob Cordova (6-0, 190) saw action at linebacker last season.

The Trojans also picked up two starters who transferred from other schools.

Safety Da’Quan Jamison (6-0, 175) was a starter at Mitchell County, and linebacker Tray Wester (6-0, 210) was starter at Dougherty County.

Lee County also has a new kicker in Hunter Johnson, who transferred to Lee from Tallahassee Lincoln High School in Florida.

“He’s got a powerful leg, and he’s accurate,’’ Fabrizio said. “He’s got 40-plus-yard range.’’

It may take a field goal here or there to push Lee County back into the playoffs.

“We felt like we left some wins on the field last year,’’ Fabrizio said. “Our goal is to win as many games as we can every year. We want to get back to the playoffs, especially the seniors who started when they were sophomores. They were part of a playoff caliber team two years ago, and they want to get back there.’’

Lee Co.’s 2012 season outlook

MASCOT: Trojans.

HEAD COACH: Dean Fabrizio (4th season as head coach at Lee, 6th season overall; 13-18 record at Lee and 25-25 record overall).

2011 RECORD: 4-6.

ASSISTANT COACHES: Mark Daniel (defensive coordinator); Mike Harville (offensive coordinator); Rhett Grant (special teams coordinator).

RETURNING STARTERS: Matt Mears (Sr., QB); Casey Hightower (Sr., WR); Andrew Stroud (Sr., WR/P); Chance Green (Sr., OL); Shabari Jones (Jr., OL); Willie Butter (Sr., DL); Colton Grove (Sr., DL); Dextric Green (So., LB), Kevin Hopkins (Jr., DB), Jacob Cordoba (Sr., LB).

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kaleb Strickland (Sr., DL), Tre Wester (Sr., LB), Quan Jamison (Jr., DB), Jalen Bush (Jr., DB), Hunter Johnson (Sr., K), Gavin Lee (Sr., OL), Robert Hatcher (Sr., OL), Jesse Freeman (Jr., OL), Chris Melton (So., DB), Tavarious Hall (Sr., RB).

2012 LEE CO. TROJANS’ schedule

Friday at Dougherty, 7:30 p.m..

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

Sept. 14 at Westover, 7:30 p.m.

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

Sept. 28 at Dodge County, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Hardaway, 7:30 p.m.

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

Oct. 26 at Harris County, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 2 vs. Northside, Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 9 at Bainbridge, 7:30 p.m.

BOLD denotes GHSA Region 1-AAAAA game