Cole Helton and Ray Cheeks have certainly experienced different paths to this point of their Mount Zion High School football careers, but as cornerstones to the Eagles' state semifinal run, they're enjoying the historic ride just the same.
Because even though they've taken different routes, they share the same destination — Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Helton has been an MZ mainstay over the course of his days as a four-year starter at linebacker, playing a part in three Class A Public state quarterfinal runs and now the first-ever final four appearance.
Cheeks, on the other hand, has served as a model of patience after undergoing a difficult transition during the past year upon transferring from Central to Mount Zion and dealing with a tough ruling by the GHSA that forced him to sit out the first four games of the 2017 season.
Needless to say, the senior Helton is making the most of his final flight with the Eagles, while Cheeks is doing everything he can to make up for lost time, soaking it all in down the stretch of his junior campaign.
As the heart and soul of the middle of the MZ defense, Helton and Cheeks headline a tremendous tandem for the top unit still standing in Class A Public, yielding just 12.9 points per game leading up to Friday night's 7:30 showdown against fifth-seeded Clinch County at The Boneyard in Homerville.
First-year Mount Zion head coach Brad Gordon noted how both play-makers have been instrumental pieces to the playoff run with Helton being one of only three returning starters from last season and an extension of the Eagle coaching staff on the field.
"He really studies it. He's a student of the game, to say the least. There's times where you can see him pointing and directing everybody around. It if wasn't for him sometimes, I don't know if we'd even get lined up," Gordon said. "He's just a leader out there on the defense."
There were several questions marks across the board for Mount Zion at the start of the season. As one of the senior leaders returning on the defensive side of the ball, it fell on Helton's shoulders to help bring everyone else up to speed.
As you can tell, things came together quite nicely for the Eagle defense under Gordon and defensive coordinator Justin Joyner.
"At the beginning of the year I just had to show the guys how to handle it, but now it's just like I'm playing with a bunch of veterans. Everybody knows what they're doing," Helton said.
Cheeks had been able to practice and be a part of the program dating back to the end of last year, but he couldn't officially step on the field with his teammates until Game 5. Ever since then, his hard-nosed play and versatility has provided a huge boost for MZ.
"We've moved him from the strong side to the weak side and this week we're even asking a little more of him. He's actually going to play some defensive end role instead of a walked-off linebacker," Gordon said. "He's athletic enough, he's tough enough that we can do a little bit of everything with him. That's the good thing about those kids. They're just ballplayers."
The wait proved quite painful at times for Cheeks, but he said it was definitely worth it to be where he is now with his best friends and teammates.
"It was tough having to go out there and just watch. I had to wait, but I just counted down from the games and when it was my time to play, I've just went out there and played," Cheeks said. "It's made me enjoy this run a lot to be on a great football team with great players."
Cheeks is actually a two-way weapon for the Eagles and his role on the offensive side of the ball increased dramatically following a season-ending injury to wing back Breon Henderson toward the end of the regular season.
Gordon said getting Cheeks into the offensive playbook had been in the works all along, but Henderson's injury magnified his need even more.
"Ray is a hard-nosed runner. He's obviously a lot different than Breon. Breon was our guy that could get up in the hole and juke. Ray, he lowers his head and he's going to try to run over you versus run around you," Gordon said. "He brings a physicality to the ballgame. He's a bigger blocking body out there at the wing. We've told him all year that he's going to be a major role on the offense. We weren't hoping it was because of an injury, but we knew sooner or later he was going to play a big role. He's definitely answered the call."
Cheeks, who can also play quarterback, said he doesn't necessarily favor one side of the ball over the other. It's all about what is best for Mount Zion.
"It's not about what I like. It's about what I do for the team. I just want to help us win," Cheeks said.
Eighth-seeded MZ (10-2) is gearing up for a date with the Panthers (10-2), who are making a third straight appearance in the semifinals or better, including a state title triumph in 2015, which marked state championship No. 6 for the Clinch County program.
The Panthers are led offensively by quarterback Charles McClelland, who has rushed and passed for more than 1,000 yards on the season. Tailback Trezmen Marshall is another big threat out of the Panther backfield.
Facing a long road trip to south Georgia and a formidable foe in the Panthers, Helton said it will be key to get off to a strong start Friday night.
"We've got to get after them early and then not let up. We've got to play all four quarters," Helton said.
Gordon has praised his senior class throughout this season for everything it's overcome, but he's also stressed that whether you're a senior star all the way down to a freshman role player, it's imperative that you embrace this moment because you never know if and when it'll happen again.
After reaching the state championship game as a young assistant coach in South Carolina prior to moving to the Peach State, Gordon recalls how special it was to be in that position and how hard it's been to get back.
"I hope all these kids appreciate the opportunity that's here in front of them. Us coaches, we were sitting around the other night talking about how many of us have been to the semis, how many have been able to play for a championship," Gordon said. "My second year into coaching, we were playing for a state championship and I thought this was going to happen every other year. All of a sudden, you realize you better be thankful for when you get there and when you get the opportunity. This is a special group of kids and they deserve the opportunity to be there."
Friday night's contest will broadcast live on KISS 102.7 FM.