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Hard work pays off as SGA’s new-look ‘D’ shines in opener

SGA junior defensive end Matthew Jernigan, who was playing his first football game for SGA on Friday after years of starring in only baseball for the Warriors, brings down Ashford quarterback JoJo Seale for one of Jernigan’s 3 1/2 sacks he registered in his debut Friday. SGA’s first-team defense pitched a 35-0 shutout through more than three quarters before eventually winning 35-14. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

SGA junior defensive end Matthew Jernigan, who was playing his first football game for SGA on Friday after years of starring in only baseball for the Warriors, brings down Ashford quarterback JoJo Seale for one of Jernigan’s 3 1/2 sacks he registered in his debut Friday. SGA’s first-team defense pitched a 35-0 shutout through more than three quarters before eventually winning 35-14. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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SGA’s Hunter Phillips, bottom, and Reid O’Hearn combine for a tackle on Ashford’s Jonathan Crowe during Friday’s season opener. The Warriors’ defense held Ashford to just 66 yards of total offense Friday, including negative-9 in the first half. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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Brent Miller

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SGA junior running back Perry Bridges back looks for an opening Friday night during one his 25 carries in the Warriors’ 2013 season opener against Ashford (Ala.) Academy. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

DAMASCUS — As peanut and cotton farmers across Early County rose in the predawn hours this summer and climbed aboard their tractors with nothing more than a gleam of sunlight peaking over those famous Georgia pines, a group of determined young men joined the early risers.

They just went to work on a different kind of field.

The 2013 version of the Southwest Georgia Academy football team didn’t expect a total transformation when Brent Miller, last year’s defensive coordinator, took over as head coach this offseason. But that’s exactly what they got.

“We worked hard over the summer, came out here every day before daylight and put these guys through a weight program like I’ve never seen,” said Eric Thomas, Miller’s successor as DC, after SGA’s 35-14 season-opening win Friday night against Ashford (Ala.) Academy — a game that just as easily could’ve ended 56-0 had the Warriors kept their first-team defense on the field all night. “And the kids have all responded. They worked hard, they listen and they’re coachable. And they just went out there (Friday) and did what we asked them to do.”

They’ve being doing it all summer.

Miller’s first back-breaking workout regimen, which he’s implemented in some variation during the preseason of all 23 years as a head coach in the GHSA ranks before coming over to the GISA, began at 6:30 a.m. in May. The first cup of coffee had hardly been poured and roosters across Damascus were just starting to rise by the time these boys went to work.

“It started with an hour of agility workouts — ladders, boxes and dots (drills) and dynamic flex — for about 45 minutes, then we’d hit the weight room hard for an hour,” said Miller, who was the first to arrive for each of the workouts and usually the last to leave, ensuring every kid had a ride home. “Once we’d leave the weight room, we’d head to the field, do sprints, then some assistance and resistance running. Then we’d pull sleds, doing all that for about an hour.”

The secret, however, was this: No one touched a football until the last 30-45 minutes of each workout session.

“We wouldn’t even get to actual football activities until the very end. That was the reward for the first three hours of hard work,” the coach continued. “We’d break them up into groups (and work individually) on their positions. All in all, we’d be out there for 3-4 hours.”

The scorching South Georgia sun was unforgiving at times — but no one quit, and any early complaints were non-existent by the end of Week 1.

The results took care of that.

The little guys got bigger. The faster guys got quicker. And linemen were starting to shed that extra helping of momma’s fried chicken or hamburger steak they’d had the night before in the first hour of Miller’s sweat-fest.

“We had a 95 percent turnout, and the only reason the other five percent didn’t make it is because we’d have a two-sport athlete who was at a baseball tournament or something,” Miller said. “And they got one week off — the week of the Fourth of July — but other than that, we did this same routine three days a week all the way up until school started.

“It also helped that we played nothing but public schools all summer in 7-on-7 camps and informal scrimmages. It didn’t just toughen us up, it put us in great shape, physically, trying to match the speed and size difference (at GHSA schools).”

The biggest impact, however, showed up on the defense, which Miller started transforming last year from a traditional five-man front to a more spread out, four-man attack with players — who were now quicker and more agile — flying all over the field. Under a heavy downpour all night, SGA raced out to a 28-0 halftime lead Friday, thanks in part to running back Perry Bridges and fullback Cabe Rathel combining for four first-half scores, but mostly because Ashford simply had no answer for the Warriors’ defensive front, which held the Falcons to negative-9 yards of total offense in the first half. Ashford finished with just 66 yards of total offense — most of that coming during its final two drives against SGA’s second- and third-teamers.

In fact, Ashford didn’t even so much as pick up a first down until the first-team defense came off the field in the fourth quarter. By then, SGA was cruising, 35-0.

“I hated losing the shutout, but through three quarters and then some, our first-team defense pitched a shutout,” Miller said. “That’s what I take away from what our defense did. … That impressed me.”

Most impressive, perhaps, was the one player who talked the most about how good the defense was going to be on the eve of SGA’s first game: 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior linebacker Thomas Vines. Vines didn’t just back up his prediction of a “blowout” by leading the Warriors in tackles with seven, as well as an assist on a sack, he set the tone for the night on the very first play by blasting up the middle and planting Ashford starting running back Jonathan Crowe on his rear end for a big loss.

“I’ve been waiting (for a year) for the biggest hit I could put on anybody,” said Vines, who still had a bitter taste in his mouth from last year’s last-second, 27-25 loss to Ashford, which nipped SGA on a 34-yard field goal as time expired — then went on to win the 1-A Alabama state championship. “That felt great.”

The Warriors also agreed it felt great to see a new star emerge on defense in junior defensive end Matthew Jernigan, who finished with 3 ½ sacks and three tackles. Jernigan, a star baseball player for the Warriors, had never played football at SGA before Friday night. And if Ashford had planned to attack the newbie early in the game, that gameplan changed quickly. By the end of the first quarter, they were running the opposite way of No. 14.

“It was a special night for me. First game, we got a win … it just feels great,” Jernigan said.

Everyone took notice of Jernigan.

“We’ve been trying to talk him into coming out for a while, and he finally did. And, boy, are we glad he did,” added defensive captain and senior Garrett Van, who — along with guys like DL Joe Lawrence, LB Colby Steel and DB Teel Massey — flung themselves around the field like wild men all night, stuffing Ashford runners at the line and wreaking havoc in the secondary.

A usually stern-faced Miller could only smile as he paced the sideline — even if it was mostly on the inside. He knew within the first 10 minutes Friday night that all the offseason work had paid off.

“I saw a team that was thicker, stronger and faster than last year, and with all the speed and agility work we did, we weren’t running into injuries the way (Ashford was),” the coach said. “You didn’t see us get tired at all, I didn’t think. That’s what happens when you practice like we did in the offseason.”

It’s worked at every stop during Miller’s coaching career, which has seen him take one program after another from a dismal season the year before to amazing heights as soon as he arrives.

Miller, a former Seminole County standout during his playing days who began his coaching career as an assistant at Miller County and Bainbridge, broke multiple school records during his first head coaching stop at Tattnall County in 1987, then helped 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,” Vann said this week before the season opener. “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.”

It certainly wasn’t Friday. And if you listen to Vines on top of his imaginary soapbox, it won’t be again next Friday.

“We came out, did what we worked on all summer and took care of business (against Ashford). We’ll play anybody, and we feel like we can play with anybody,” he said. “Now it’s on to the next one to see if we can do it again.”

That would be Deerfield, the reigning GISA Class AAA state champs, next week in Albany. And while Miller and SGA will still be without starting running back Will Warren (DNP, coach’s decision), as well as continuing to break in new quarterback Quinn LaGuardia, a sophomore, the coach at least has no concerns about one side of the ball heading into a matchup he says “will tell us exactly how good we really are” when it’s over.

“I realize we’re a smaller county private school who doesn’t get all the move-ins from the city like a Deerfield or Valwood does, and that’s OK. We’re used to being out-athleted and out-sized, but right now I think our defense can hang with anybody,” he said. “And I’ll tell you something else: It’s also gonna be hard to find a bunch who works harder than us.”

Just ask the farmers. They’ll tell ya.

NOTES: Ashford scored its first TD of the game on a muffed punt after second-team return man Tristan Moulton started to field the kick, then backed off. Moulton appeared to narrowly miss touching the ball, but when it was scooped up by the Falcons’ Crowe, no whistles were blown and Crowe waltzed into the end zone from 35 yards out. When Miller was asked whether he thought Moulton touched the ball or not, he just laughed. “He swore up and down he didn’t,” the coach said. … The two teams combined for nine total fumbles in the mucky conditions Friday, although SGA only lost one, while Ashford lost two — both of which were recovered by Steel … Bridges finished with 181 yards on 25 carries and three first-half scores for SGA … Jernigan wasn’t the only newcomer making his debut Friday who garnered praise from Miller. Two-way lineman Ben Chandler, a 6-foot-5, 340-pound senior who was easily the biggest guy in the stadium Friday (counting the fans), towered over everyone, blowing open holes on offense and stuffing those same holes on defense all night. Also making his debut was sophomore kicker Austin Cowart, who was 4-for-5 on PATs, with his only miss coming because of a botched snap … Savannah Hall, who is the reigning Miss Junior Teen Georgia and a native of nearby Blakely, sang a silky smooth rendition of the National Anthem before the kickoff … SGA debuted new uniforms Friday night, complete with a redesigned helmet that is now all gray, rather than blue … SGA’s offense operated under a new-look, no-huddle attack from the opening snap, which caught Ashford off guard and sleeping once or twice after the Warriors took less than 15 seconds to pull off each play during its drives. “That’s conditioning over the summer right there,” Miller said. “I thought we executed that well.” …. former SGA baseball and softball coach Tommy Manry, who retired last year but still helps out with many of the sports programs, entered his 11th year as the Warriors’ P.A. announcer Friday. He also served as Calhoun County’s P.A. announcer for more than 30 years prior to coming to SGA … Local radio station 90.5 FM carried SGA’s opener Friday night and will broadcast all of the Warriors game — home and away — during the season …. Friday’s 8 p.m. kickoff was the Warriors’ only late start of the year. All the rest of their games, beginning next week at Deerfield, begin at 7:30 p.m.