SGA returning wideout Teel Massey makes a catch during practice this summer. Massey is one of nine returning starters for the Warriors, who will look to atone for a 5-7 season a year ago when they open tonight at home against Ashford (Ala.) Academy. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miller)

SGA returning wideout Teel Massey makes a catch during practice this summer. Massey is one of nine returning starters for the Warriors, who will look to atone for a 5-7 season a year ago when they open tonight at home against Ashford (Ala.) Academy. (Photo courtesy of Linda Miller)

DAMASCUS — After more than three decades in the GHSA ranks, Brent Miller retired two years ago and moved home to tend to the family farm in Miller County, thinking his days in high school football were behind him.

Welcome back, coach.

Miller spent 31 years pacing the sidelines — and rewriting the record books — of several public school programs before calling it career two years ago, only to return when one of his former players called asking for a favor. That player was David Bell, SGA’s head coach who brought Miller aboard in 2012 as maybe the most highly over-qualified defensive coordinator in history. But when Bell took an assistants job this offseason at state powerhouse Cairo, there was no question who would be asked to take over.

“I’m home and near my family, so it feels great to be back,” Miller said Thursday before his team’s final practice in preparation for tonight’s 2013 season opener against Ashford (Ala.) Academy — last year’s Alabama private school state champ. “This is my 31st year of coaching and 24th year being a head coach, all in the public school before now. And I know when a team is ready to play. And this team in ready.”

After a disappointing 5-7 season in 2012, they’d better be. And with tonight’s game being the first of the 2013 campaign in Southwest Georgia, there will be a bigger-than-usual crowd making its way to tiny town of Damascus for the 8 p.m. kickoff to see if they truly are.

“We’re just ready to set the tone, baby,” said SGA senior WR/DB Teel Massey, one of nine returning starters for the Warriors. “What happens (tonight) sets the tone for the rest of the season.”

It certainly did last year when SGA traveled to Ashford for a similar early-season matchup and took the eventual state champs down to the wire on its home field, needing only to stop Ashford on the final drive to preserve the win. Instead, Ashford got into field goal range, lined up and booted a 34-yarder that skipped off the goal post and through with no time left. Final: Ashford 27, SGA 25.

“That left a bad taste in our mouth,” said senior two-way lineman Thomas Vines, who watched his team start the season 1-3. “We’re ready for revenge. (I predict) a blowout (tonight).”

Massey took SGA’s plans for Ashford one step further.

“A shutout and a blowout,” he added with a wry smile on his face.

To set that tone, however, the Warriors’ approach to the offseason had to be centered around defense, which wasn’t all that great under Miller a year ago when he tried to implement a new scheme that admittedly took the players “3-to-4 games to really get it,” the coach said. In its seven losses last year, SGA was outscored, 254-106, including surrendering 34 points or more in six of those defeats.

It was a stat that made Miller lose some sleep during the past year, so he brought in Eric Thomas from Randolph-Clay to take over the defense and implement his philosophy. And now, the Warriors are sure those days of giving up 40-something points a game are behind them.

“(Coach Miller’s) defense is pretty complicated, but since he’s been here a year with us, we’ve learned it and we know it well,” said Vines, referring to SGA’s switch from a five-man front to a four-man rush that features constant movement on any given down by the linebackers and secondary. “Everyone’s scattered out and — to make it work — everyone has to do their jobs. It’s a lot more aggressive — but we like it.”

Miller, a former Seminole County standout during his playing days who began his coaching career as an assistant at Miller County and Bainbridge, has preached defense his entire career. It’s what helped him break multiple school records during his first head coaching stop at Tattnall County in 1987, then help his next program at Evans County achieve a consistent Top 5 ranking. He later led Berrien to its first, and only, region title and was named the region’s Coach of the Year in 1991 with the Rebels after he turned a 2-8, last-place team into a region champ. He did the same at Elbert County, taking a 1-9 program the year before to the state playoffs. And in his last head coaching stop at Lanier County in 2011 before coming to SGA, he helped the Bulldogs achieve their first six-win season in school history.

“We have a lot of faith in coach,” said senior LB/OL Garrett Vann, who Miller calls the “captain” of the defense. “It took us a while to get used to his new defense, but once we all understood (our jobs) and what we had to do, it all clicked. Defense isn’t going to be one of our problems this year.”

The offense, meanwhile, could be an issue in the early going —- but only because SGA is breaking in a new quarterback in sophomore Quinn LaGuardia, who will make his first start tonight. It’s always a great unknown how an underclassman will handle the transition from the friendly confines of the practice field to playing under the bright lights of a Friday night. But if you listen to LaGuardia’s teammates tell it, they have all the confidence in the world in their young gun, who Miller says “has a heck of an arm.”

“We’ve got a lot of faith in our new quarterback,” Vines said, shooting a glance at LaGuardia as he stood a few feet away. “He understands the offense as well as anybody on our team. We respect him, and we think he’s going to do a great job.”

LaGuardia was nearly speechless when Vines finished.

“Wow … thanks, man,” was all the sophomore initially said, before adding a few seconds later: “It means a lot to hear that. Sure, there’s always a little pressure. But I feel like I can make the right decisions, and I’m ready to step up.”

LaGuardia will have help, namely from returning running backs Will Warren, Hunter Phillips and Perry Bridges, and newcomer Stephen Jackson. Senior Davis Ponder brings experience to the tight end position, while Massey will once again be the team’s top wideout, and junior fullback Cabe Rather will be tasked with blowing open holes on the line. LaGuardia may also give way to two other quarterbacks in certain short-yardage packages at times this year — junior Reed O’Hearn and senior Charlie Braford, a Miller County transfer — and he said he’s just fine with that.

“There’s nothing wrong with competition,” LaGuardia began, “as long as it makes all of us better and helps us win.”

And that’s good, because winning is pretty much Miller’s thing.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I feel great about this group. I know our strengths and weaknesses, and what we need to work on. But I feel the kids put in the work this summer so our strengths far outweigh our weaknesses at this point,” Miller said. “I’m looking forward to this season, especially (tonight). This place is gonna be rockin’.”

NOTES: SGA, which plays four of its first five games against higher-classification schools, is already pointing to what it feels will be the biggest game of the year: an Oct. 4 homecoming game against Terrell Academy — the Warriors’ GISA Region 3-AA opener. “That’s the one we know is huge,” Miller said. “We’ve got to start off region with a win on homecoming, and Terrell’s going to be one of the teams to beat in our region.” …. Miller’s coaching staff also has two new additions besides Thomas: Curtis Stanfield (offensive/defensive line) and Rob Toal (WRs/QBs) … With Randolph Southern School in Shellman closing after last school year, the Patriots’ talented football players had to find a new home, but SGA was apparently not one of them. According to Miller, region foe Terrell Academy was the main benefactor, picking up “10 or 12 of their players, from what I heard,” the coach said. “We got a few of their students, but none of them played football.” … SGA will compete in a six-team region this year that includes Brookwood, Sherwood, Westwood, Terrell Academy and Valwood. The Valiants will once again be the team to beat after going 14-0 last season and winning the region crown and the Class AA state title.