SGA junior running Perry Bridges back looks for an opening Friday night during one his 25 carries in the Warriors' 2013 season opener against Ashford (Ala.) Academy. Bridges was busy all night, rushing for 181 yards and the scores to lead SGA in a romp of the Falcons, 35-14, in Damascus. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DAMASCUS --- Senior Teel Massey predicted a shutout and a blowout Friday night in Southwest Georgia Academy's 2013 season opener against Ashford Academy.
He and the Warriors nearly got both.
Under a heavy stream of rain throughout Friday evening and with a large crowd on hand either huddled under umbrellas and decked out in ponchos, SGA rolled to a 28-0 halftime lead against the defending Alabama 1-A state champs in the first high school football game of the season in Southwest Georgia, eventually cruising to a 35-14 win.
The victory also avenged a bitter 27-25 defeat to Ashford in the Warriors' 2012 season opener and gave SGA's Brent Miller, who is in his 24th year as a head coach but his first in Damascus, victory No. 1 with the Warriors.
"It feels real good right now," Miller said. "This is exactly how we wanted to start the season."
Perry Bridges, SGA's junior running back who has been playing in the shadow of senior star Will Warren, had a breakout game Friday night, carrying the ball 25 times for 181 yards and three first-half scores. Warren was held out the game because of a coach's decision and also won't play next week when the Warriors come to Albany to face Deerfield in the Knights' 2013 opener. Miller declined to elaborate when asked why Warren was being held out, but he said he had a plan on how to utilize his new-found, two-headed monster once Warren and Bridges start lining up on the field together.
"We're going to run both of them," he said with a smile.
And Bridges is just fine with that.
"I hope (Will and I can be a great tandem)," he said. "I just run the ball as best as I can. It's all about the line. If they don't block, we don't get no yards. It's really up to them, and they did their job (Friday). I told them that after every play."
SGA didn't need Warren, last season's leading rusher, in this one. Ashford, which lost 11 seniors off last year's state title team, was clearly outmanned and outclassed from its opening snap, which ended with SGA's senior defensive leader Thomas Vines blasting up the middle and planting Ashford starting running back Jonathan Crowe on his rear end.
"I've been waiting (for a year) for the biggest hit I could put on anybody," the 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker said. "That felt great."
SGA fullback Cabe Rathel added the Warriors' other two scores on runs of seven and 20 yards, while newcomer Stephen Jackson carried the ball nine times for 55 yards. The trio of Rathel, Jackson and Bridges drew Miller's praise after the game.
"I thought they all ran well, ran hard," said Miller, who added that he was also pleased with the command of the offense that first-year starting quarterback Quinn LaGuardia, a sophomore, demonstrated Friday. "And our line did an outstanding job, too."
But the game ball would have to go to Vines and the defense, which carried a chip on their shoulder entering the season after giving up 34 or more points in six games last year en route to a disappointing 5-7 record. Vines led the charge Friday with seven total tackles, including a couple of de-cleaters, but he wasn't alone by any means as the Warriors held Ashford to negative-9 yards of offense in the first half and just 66 yards for the entire game. Matthew Jernigan, a 6-foot, 170-pound junior, didn't just play his first game of organized football Friday, SGA's freshest face on the team finished with a staggering 3 1/2 sacks and three total tackles, garnering a few atta-boys from his teammates and coaches.
"He's a baseball player, and a good athlete, so I asked him to come try football," Miller said. "And, man ... what a heck of a debut, huh?"
Added SGA defensive captain Garrett Vann about Jernigan's night: "We've been trying to talk him into coming out for a while, and he finally did. And, boy, are we glad he did."
Jernigan said he felt at home on a football field.
"It was a special night for me. First game, we got a win ... it just feels great," he said.
With a slippery ball and soggy field, the first quarter featured four fumbles between the two teams and very little offense. Bridges, however, found the end zone for the first touchdown of 2013 with 58 seconds left in the first quarter from 19 yards out to set the tone for SGA. The 6-foot-1, 160-pound speedster would add romps of 31 and three yards sandwiched between Rathel's score, and a running clock looked imminent in the second half. But when the pace slowed in the third quarter with neither team scoring, it wasn't until there was eight minutes left in the game that SGA put this one away on Rathel's second TD to go up 35-0.
Miller said he was bummed when his team lost the shutout with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter after Crowe scooped up a muffed punt and took it in untouched for the score, but Miller preferred to look at the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty.
"Through three quarters and then some, our first-team defense pitched a shutout. That's what I take away from what our defense did (Friday night)," said Miller, who was SGA's defensive coordinator last season before taking over this year after former head coach David Bell bolted for an assistants job in Cairo. "But my hat's off to the defense. They didn't give up a first down all night. That's impressed me."
New defensive coordinator Eric Thomas was impressed, too.
"I give them an A-plus," he said. "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. 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."
Ashford would tack on a final score against SGA's third-team defense with less than 30 seconds to play when the Falcons' Jackson Ward barreled across the goal line to make the final margin 21 points.
But by then, the Warriors had already started planning for Deerfield.
"Not nervous at all," Vines said of facing the Knights, who are GISA's Class AAA defending state champs. "We'll play anybody."
NOTES: 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 SGA senior linebacker Colby Steel ... 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.