ALBANY — The Deerfield-Windsor Knights’ football team is 4-0 this season, the first time since the 2010 state championship team that the Knights have started the season undefeated after four games.
In an interview before the season, head coach Jake McCrae said his team was a 3-7 team until they proved otherwise. And the Knights are doing that.
McCrae credits the turnaround to his group of 13 seniors — a group that features quarterback Thomas Ray, running back and defensive end Ethan Johnson, wide receiver and safety Boles Middleton, defensive end Harrison Dyke, tight end Ben Hatcher, defensive end Aaron Johnson, wide receiver and running back Chance Bacon, cornerback Parks Cohen, running back Chewy Willis, linebacker Brooks Margeson, cornerback Reid Martin, wide receiver Tillman Dew and center Henry Hood.
“I knew I had a good group of seniors to start the year,” the coach said. “I knew how good our summer went and I knew this would be a player-led team. But I couldn’t predict what the other teams would have, so I wasn’t certain how things would go. We can only control what we do.”
“I have fantastic coaches helping me,” McCrae continued, “but I know that player-led teams do much better than coach-led teams. These seniors are what is making the difference. They help with so many of the peripheral things so I can focus on other issues. They take care of things such as making sure the locker room is clean, making sure all the guys are practicing full speed. They know how important practice time is and they make sure the guys are ready to go.”
A brief look at the numbers can show why the Knights are doing much better. After four games last year, the Knights had scored a total of 39 points and had allowed 130 points. After four games this season the Knights have scored 144 points and allowed only 69. Why?
“The players have another year of experience and another year in the weight room,” McCrae said. “And Coach Creech, Coach Rhodes and Coach Peacock are getting us into the best defensive sets.”
“These guys have taken ownership of this program. They are the ones who will decide how far we will go,” the coach said.
When asked about any surprises that stood out after the first four games, McCrae pointed to the offensive line.
“I was skeptical about the offensive line early,” he said. “We had holes in the line to start the season and I had some of these seniors come up and say they would fill those spots, but they weren’t linemen, they were linebackers. But they jumped in and worked and they have really started to gel.”
The Knights will get a major test Friday night when the Terrell Academy Eagles come to town. The Eagles (3-0) are also undefeated and are coming off of a season where they fell just short of the state championship last year. The Knights and the Eagles have not played in recent years but are now in the same region. The last time the two teams played in 2017, Deerfield-Windsor won 35-3.
“They are coming in to show they that are still the best in this new region set-up,” McCrae said. “We are coming in to usurp that and prove that we can be the best in the region.”
But that is not the only reason this game is a big deal.
“These guys have grown up watching each other and competing with and against each other,” McCrae said. “They know each other and this gives them a chance to play against each other.”
The Knights and the Eagles are together in the new GIAA region set up for the football season in a region that also includes Brookwood, Tiftarea, Southland and Valwood — all teams which are familiar to the Knights’ players. It is a step up for the Eagles, who played in AA last year in GISA and are now playing in AAA in the new GIAA.
McCrae took over the Deerfield-Windsor program just as the school moved out of the GISA and into the GHSA. After two years, the Knights are now in the newly formed GIAA, which was restructured from the GISA. Southland was the only school that remained on the DWS schedule when the Knights moved to the GHSA.
Deerfield-Windsor has only two of the final six games at home this season, including Friday night’s game with the Eagles of Terrell Academy. The seniors are confident they can finish the season unbeaten.
“I know the competition is about to get much stronger,” said running back Ethan Johnson. “But we are working hard and improving and I think we can win the region and win them all.”
His fellow seniors concurred. The coach is hopeful.
“I don’t know how far we will go, it will be up to the players,” McCrae said. “I’ve been telling these guys over and over again, the goal is to be practicing on Thanksgiving morning. If you’re practicing on Thanksgiving, it means you’ve done something right and that turkey and cranberry will taste much better after football practice.”
The last time the Knights were able to start 4-0 they ended up winning the state championship with a perfect 13-0 record in 2010. The 13 seniors of the 2022 Knights have set their sights on the same thing.