By Rory Sharrock
They said they wouldn't finish over .500, yet Mt. Zion went 6-4 in the regular season (now 8-4, 5-3 Region 4-AAAA) and clinched its first playoff berth since 2004.
They said they'd be a one-and-done team in the postseason, but it's Thanksgiving weekend and they're still playing football.
Mt. Zion has overcome an instable county school board, a preseason position change at quarterback, losing the regular season finale at Ola to fall from second to fourth in the region and 372 miles of Georgia's highways during the playoffs, only to stand strong as the lone survivor from the Southern Crescent fighting for a state championship.
Throughout the postseason, the Bulldogs have played the role of David, slaying Goliath at Evans, 36-10 and then again at Ware County, 19-0.
However, this time, Mt. Zion will need an even bigger slingshot as it attempts to defeat the towering giant better known as the Marist War Eagles in Friday night's Class AAAA quarterfinal playoff game at Marist High School.
"We just want a chance to go out and show what we can do. We know what Marist can do. We want a chance to stand in the spotlight and see if we can compete," said Mt. Zion head coach Jarrett Laws. "We want to represent the best that Clayton County has to offer. We've always referred to ourselves as the class of Clayton County and we want to represent for all the programs in the county that have been shinning."
It was business as usual for Marist (11-1, 9-0 Region 6-AAAA) in 2008. The No. 1 seeded War Eagles have appeared in the playoffs every year since 1983. As a result of this impressive 25-year run, Marist has established creditable reputation as one of the premiere programs in the state.
After dropping the season opener at St. Pius X, Marist rolled off 11 straight wins almost without breaking a sweat. With the exception of their 14-13 victory at Chamblee, the War Eagles have won every contest by double figures and scored over 40 points five times.
Marist's run-first offense features a twist to the Wing-T with multiple option set plays. This alignment is protected by a massive offensive line that gets down in a four-point stance and breaks low off the snap to block the rush.
For this reason, it will be strength versus strength during this state quarterfinal match as the War Eagles' score at will offense arm wrestles with the Bulldogs' Master lock defense.
Mt. Zion yielded 18.2 points during the regular season, but in the playoffs, it's been a whole different story. The Bulldogs have made scoring a difficult task in the postseason, giving up only 10 points in two games.
On the offensive end, Mt. Zion is blessed with a Kentucky Derby-like stable of running backs with speedsters Quartterio Morgan and Josh King. Both players are stars on the 4x100-meter relay team and they've been known to turn the gridiron into their personal track meet.
Along with the two-headed monster in the backfield, Mt. Zion's offense is led by former quarterback turned First Team All-Region 4-AAAA wide receiver Drexel Copeland, who is a big play waiting to happen on almost every down.
"We have to come with the same intensity we had last week (at Ware County) and play hard for seven seconds strong like coach (Laws) says. If we're disciplined and do what we're supposed to do, we'll come out on top," said Copeland.
This game marks the second time that Mt. Zion and Marist will meet up on the football field. They first squared off on Dec. 10, 1999 at the Georgia Dome in a suspense-filled battle of unbeaten teams, which ranks as one of the most memorable games in Georgia high school football playoff history.
In this time capsule of an affair, the Bulldogs beat the War Eagles 10-7 behind Phil Tullar's 43-yard field goal as time expired to put Mt. Zion in the state championship game.
It will be a tall order for Mt. Zion to duplicate this type of performance, but if it does, this will be its deepest playoff run since 1999.
Mt. Zion has exceeded all expectations by making it to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Second-year head coach Laws weeded out all the bad seeds and has revised the entire mentality within the program. He brings a vast knowledge of football from his days coaching high school football in Tampa and he's quietly building a solid foundation one win at a time.
"I can't take credit. I have coaches that day in and day out, put up with me and all of my idiosyncrasies. They're committed to these kids and these kids are committed to me. All that I am is a conduit to everything's that occurring. I'm just a link in the chain," said Laws.
Should the Bulldogs advance past the War Eagles, they'll be on the road once again to face the winner of Rome/Statesboro next week with a trip to the Class AAAA Final Four at the Georgia Dome on the line.