The Heard County High School football team has already tied a school record for single-season wins and is embarking on its third state quarterfinal appearance in program history.
And while the top-seeded Braves are proud of where they stand, they're far from content heading into tonight's 8 p.m. matchup against fellow No. 1 seed Thomasville at Veterans Memorial Stadium in south Georgia.
Perhaps a little caught up in the moment in the two previous elite eight trips, this group is different for several reasons, and one of the biggest factors the Braves have going for themselves is a swagger — although not overconfidence —as they truly believe this is where they're supposed to be at this stage of the season, competing among the best of the best.
"It's just different. It's not new to the coaching staff, and I think that's big. The players understand that when we go back and we look the last time we were here how close we really were," noted Heard County head coach Tim Barron. "It was kind of an unknown then. Did we match up? Can we play with these guys? Can we play at that level? We're at the point now that, including us, everybody is really good in Week 13. There ain't no cupcakes. None of that is going to be there. We're here for a reason. We're here because we deserve to be here."
Heard County (11-1) simply isn't satisfied by just getting to Game 13. It's hungry and feels as though it has as good a shot at anyone in capturing the Class AA crown. Of course, you can't win Game 15 without winning Game 13 and that's the No. 1 priority right now.
"We're not saying we're better, we're worse or what than who we're playing. We're just saying we've got to go play and we've got to go execute and play real football. If we do that and take the mindset of just worrying about us and not being satisfied, not being overwhelmed by the situation, it just boils down to executing a football game plan. You can see it in our kids' eyes that they kind of get it," Barron said.
The Bulldogs (12-0) feature a balanced offensive led by quarterback J.T. Rice, who completed 16-of-27 passes for 218 yards last week and has thrown for 2,428 yards on the year. The high-scoring Thomasville attack averages over 200 yards on the ground and over 200 through the air each game.
"They are extremely well-coached, extremely athletic. They can do so many different things. They run the ball exceptionally well, they throw the ball exceptionally well. They can spread you out and get you in a one back and do things or they can run it right at you," Barron said. "I think at any level, when you get a team that's balanced, No. 1, you've got to stop the run and that's what we struggled with last week. We've got to do a better job playing the run this week than we did last week."
On the other side of the ball, Emory Jones — who has thrown for 2,113 yards this fall —and the Heard County offense are gearing up for a defense that brings it on every play, putting the onus on the O-line and the Ohio State commit under center to make those in-game adjustments on the fly.
"Offensively, we've got to pick up that pressure. They're going to bring pressure, they're going to bring heat at us. That's their motto all year. You can see it on film. They're playing Cover Zero behind it, so Emory is going to have to make some decisions. There's going to be some pre-snap stuff that he's going to have to deliver on. The O-line, they're going to have to work, work, work and make sure their head's up and they're communicating, they're calling out blitzes and those things for us to be successful offensively," Barron said.
Upon making the long haul to south Georgia, Heard County actually departed from Franklin on Thursday afternoon and won't have to deal with the travel logistics on game day. Barron said it's critical that his ballclub is in the right mindset to handle an overnight trip, and he feels it is at this point.
"The biggest thing is make sure the kids understand it's a business trip," Barron said. "When you take high school kids and you spend the night overnight, they really have to be mature enough to understand that their free time is focused on the reason you do it, it's that extra mental preparation you can gain by having your hands on the kids the whole day. The last time we did it the kids handled it well. It helped us in our preparation. Hopefully, it does again this year."
The Braves did receive good news on Tuesday after the GHSA held its second universal coin flip that came up heads, meaning they would host the state semifinals next week if they win tonight.
In order to do that, they want a large following on the road to help them deliver a historic victory.
"I just hope the Heard County community comes out and supports us. It's going to mean a lot. Thomasville has a big fan base, so it's going to mean a lot if we can bring a lot of fans with us," noted junior offensive lineman Michael Cheney.
Friday night's contest will broadcast live on B-92.1 FM.