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PREVIEW: Bobcats hit to road to face GAC, one win from state semis

Early County defensive end Shaq Powell works out Wednesday during the second-to-last practice for the Bobcats, who will hit the road today for the third game in a row in the GHSA Class AA state playoffs, this time facing the Greater Atlanta Christian School in the Elite 8. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

Early County defensive end Shaq Powell works out Wednesday during the second-to-last practice for the Bobcats, who will hit the road today for the third game in a row in the GHSA Class AA state playoffs, this time facing the Greater Atlanta Christian School in the Elite 8. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

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WHO: Early County (9-3) at Greater Atlanta Christian School (9-3).

WHAT: GHSA Class AA Elite 8.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Atlanta.

LIVE SCORING UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldsports.

IF WIN: Will face winner of Fitzgerald-Jefferson next Friday.

BLAKELY — No one has seen more road than Early County’s Bobcats, who traveled more than three hours two weeks ago to beat Bleckley County in the first round of the playoffs and more than five hours last week before beating Screven County in the Sweet 16.

They’ve got four-hour drive ahead of them today just to face Greater Atlanta Christian in the Class AA state quarterfinals.

Call them the Roadcats.

But it’s not the highway that has made this Early County team so hungry, so eager and so special.

No, it’s the other road they took to get here, the one full of speed bumps and broken hearts. The one that burned the edge on them.

“There was some crying,’’ said senior K.D. Williams, who starts on both sides of the line.

“There was a lot of pain,’’ added Shaq Powell, one of the top offensive linemen in Southwest Georgia.

“Yeah, it hurt to lose those games,’’ chipped in linebacker Brakari Isom, who leads the team in tackles with 163.

They were talking about last year’s 4-6 season, a year of bitter, close losses that stayed with these seniors, a year that drove them to become better, drove them right into the heart of the state playoffs.

That’s where Early is today, and there was nothing close about the Bobcats’ arrival to the Elite 8 round of the playoffs.

They hit the road as a No. 3 seed and then hit opponents even harder. The Bobcats hammered Bleckley, 40-20, and then ripped Screven County, 28-7, stopping Screven’s big 250-pound running back Jeremy Johnson cold. He was averaging 138 yards a game, but he was held to only 64 yards by the first-team defense. It was 28-0 before Johnson added 47 yards late in the game to finish with 101 yards.

Most of the Early kids were getting ready to board the bus back home by the time he reached the 100-yard mark.

Trey Woolf knew this group had a chance to be this good.

“We had all those close games last year, and I told them all year that after those losses last year, that if they kept working we could be a dangerous team in the playoffs,’’ said the coach, who knows all about winning in the postseason.

He has taken two teams to the semifinals and one to the state title game since becoming the head coach in 2001, and he was part of two other state semifinalist and a state finalist as an assistant coach at Early before that.

This team had a tougher road, simply because it plays in the most brutal region in the state. The top four teams in Region 1-AA were all ranked in the state’s Top 10 at some point this season, and now that there are just eight teams left in the state picture — three of them from 1-AA.

Brooks County plays at top-ranked Calhoun tonight and Fitzgerald faces Jefferson on the road tonight, while Early meets GAC, which was ranked seventh in the state poll.

“We’ve got three of the eight teams,’’ Woolf said. “We knew if we could just get out of the region, we would have a chance. Last year, we lost close games in the region. We lost to Thomasville in overtime (13-12), lost a close game to Fitzgerald (20-14) and lost by one point to Cook (27-26).’’

The sting of those losses carried over to this season.

“We talked about it this summer, about winning close games,’’ Isom said. “We bought into what the coaches told us we had to do. We lost close games last year because of mental mistakes. We had to be better mentally. We grew up from those losses.’’

Isom said the seniors on the team — and Early is loaded with 21 of them — have been talking about being a playoff team since they arrived as freshman.

“When we got here in ninth grade Early hadn’t been to the playoffs in two or three years, and we said we would be the ones to get back in the playoffs,’’ lsom said. “But then we didn’t do it last year. We always felt like we were going to be the team.’’

And now they are.

“One of the keys to this season has been the senior leadership,’’ Woolf said. “They believe in what we’re doing, and they believe in each other, and that goes to senior leadership.’’

The Early kids even bounced back from tough losses this year. They fell just short on a two-point conversion run and lost to Class AAAAA Bainbridge, 14-12, then bounced right back and won the next week against a tough Miller County team, and they lost a 17-14 heartbreaker to Fitzgerald when a 32-yard field goal slipped just wide with four seconds left.

“That was a tough loss. They could have tucked their tails and run after that, but we came back and won the next two games to get into the playoffs,’’ Woolf said.

The biggest moment came in the final game against Cook when the lead changed hands three times in the final five minutes, and Early survived when Ladonis Bryant returned a kickoff 84 yards with 1:52 left to lift Early to a 27-22 win. The Bobcats (9-3) haven’t slowed down since.

Quarterback Jacori Taylor has had two big playoff games and has now thrown for 1,736 yards (117 of 218) and 18 touchdowns, and has rushed for 823 yards on 160 carries and seven TDs. He threw for 147 yards and rushed for 134 last week against Screven.

Bryant has rushed for 964 yards on 119 carries and a dozen touchdowns, and he has caught 39 passes for 621 yards and six more TDs and gained 104 yards last week.

Those two give Early one of the best 1-2 punches in the state, and — as Woolf points out — his offensive line is playing better every week. Powell and Williams lead the front, which has opened the door for 68 points in two playoff games.

Powell and Williams are also a big force on the defensive line, where Woolf rotates players such as Jartavious Jones and Brandon Webb. Isom has been a terror at linebacker and seems to be everywhere he needs to be for a defense that swarms and hits hard.

GAC (9-3) will be the favorite all over Georgia tonight, and Woolf applauds the Spartans for how talented and disciplined they are.

“They are the most balanced team we’ve faced all year,’’ Woolf said.

GAC’s quarterback Rafe Chapple has completed 37 of 44 passes for 513 yards in the two playoff games and has thrown for 2,146 yards this season. He completed 22 of 26 for 366 yards and three TDs last week alone, while GAC tailback Kyle Scales has rushed for 1,196 yards and 20 TDs and had a 133-yard, four-TD game in last week’s 52-21 blowout win against Heard.

There’s respect from both ends of the field.

“Early County’s a typical South Georgia team,’’ GAC coach Tim Hardy said. “They’re talented. They’re big and fast. They have two dynamic playmakers on offense who really stand out. ... That’s a great region they play in. It’s a physical brand of football.”

If nothing else, the Bobcats are physical and confident.

“I think we gained more confidence all year,’’ Taylor said. “We believe in each other, and we believe we are going to the Dome — and going to win it all.’’