To be the champion, you have to beat the champion.” That is a saying, in one form or another, that has stood the test of time in the sports world and it proves true once again as New Manchester heads into state tourney play for the first time in the program’s four year history.

It wasn’t a smooth ride to the playoffs. The long road was paid with the blood, sweat and tears of 35 seniors who have been apart of the team since day one.

Those seniors, along with the rest of the Jaguar team, will need to play nearly perfect Friday night as they travel to Creekside High School to take on the reigning 2013 state championship Seminoles.

Creekside went 15-0 last season, beating Tucker 52-28 in the 5A title game. This year, the team has not been quite as dominant, losing two regular season games, one to Langston Hughes, a higher class non-region opponent, and one to Carver-Atlanta, in a Region 6-AAAAA game.

The Seminoles have a powerful offense that is averaging 32.4 points per game in 2014. They also have a solid defense, that is allowing only 19.6 per game.

Creekside is led by their quarterback, Felix Harper, and their running back, Bricen Terry. Terry packs 205 pounds of force in only a 5-foot-9 frame.

“He is a strong kid that will be playing on Saturdays,” said NMHS head coach Rob Cleveland. “He is hard to bring down. I have seen six game films of him and have yet to see any one person bring him down.”

Harper, at 6-foot, 165 pounds, is an elusive quarterback that also has an arm. He plays a similar style to New Manchester’s Tabashi Thomas, though with a little less arm strength.

“They are very explosive and the QB is quick,” Cleveland said. “They have scored a lot of points with a big strike offense. We will have to play a bend don’t break defense against them.”

Defensively, Cleveland says Creekside is the fastest team the Jaguars have faced this year. They do a good job of coming off the blocks and swarming the football.

The New Manchester coach knows all to well that Creekside will be a difficult task, despite the difference in record from this year and last year.

“They are the state champions until someone knocks them off,” Cleveland said. “This is an opportunity of a life time for our guys.”

The Jaguar football program began in 2011 with two varsity football games. New Manchester went 2-0. In 2012, New Manchester opened the season with two wins, but then lost their next eight games. Last year it looked like the Jags were primed for a playoff berth after starting the season 4-0. However, a four game losing streak sealed any hopes of reaching the tourney in 2013. New Manchester managed to close out the season on a positive note, winning their last two games.

This season disaster nearly struck twice. The Jags opened the year with three straight wins, only to lose their next three games. However, the senior core would not allow another playoff opportunity slip through their collective fingers. New Manchester rolled off wins against Paulding, Chapel Hill and then Lithia Springs. The 38-0 victory over the Lions sealed a playoff opportunity.

The season came to a close with a hard fought loss to Alexander, who went to the Elite 8 round of the AAAA playoffs the previous season.

New Manchester has been led this season by a host of offensive standouts. Leading the group is Thomas at QB. The duel threat junior is having an outstanding year despite dealing with injuries in the second half of the season. He has completed 101-of-195 passes for 1,719 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has thrown only six interceptions. Thomas has also rushed 443 times for three touchdowns. While his stats are good, his best trait is being about to extend plays with his legs, allowing his receivers to get open.

The New Manchester receivers have benefited greatly from the strong arm of Thomas. Leading the group is Tyrone Scott, who has caught 21 passes for 550 yards and eight TD’s. Next is Jacob Battle, who has 34 receptions for 506 yards and five touchdowns. Tyler Simmons has caught 28 passes for 490 yards and 4 TD’s.

Brian Herrien and Omahri Jarrett share the carries in the rushing attack. Herrien has carried the ball 113 times for 638 yards and eight touchdowns. Jarrett has 96 carries for 443 yards and three TD’s. He also has 11 catches for 133 yards and two scores.

Defensively, Robert Walker leads New Manchester in total tackles while playing middle linebacker. Ryan Santos, at defensive end, leads the Jags in tackles for a loss and sacks. Safeties Isaiah Britt, CJ McPherson and Tikal Petty can shut down receivers. Each player has over 60 tackles this year. Keith Lloyd also stands out at middle linebacker.

This group of core skill players has helped the Jaguars average 28.8 points per game this year on offense. The defense has been strong, allowing only 21.1 per game.

Game time for the first round playoff game will be 7:30 p.m. in Fairburn.

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