Sandy Creek put up 41 points on Henry County, and that's when the Warhawks' confidence began to soar.
Sandy Creek handed the Warhawks a 20-point defeat and a 1-3 record five weeks into the season, and finally Henry County believed it could be a good team.
Maybe it's crazy. Maybe it's backwards. But that was the turning point for Henry County. Against the No. 2 team in Class AAA, against the defending Class AAAA champs that had dropped into their region, the Warhawks produced 470 yards of offense, 21 points and a performance to build on.
"I think our players believed if we could play with (Sandy Creek) and play like that, we've got something going here," Henry County coach Mike Rozier said. "It seemed like after that game we got going full stride."
Indeed, since the Sandy Creek loss on Sept. 24, the Warhawks (6-3, 6-1 Region 4-AAA) have transformed into a playoff-caliber team that nobody's talking about.
Five straight wins has never come so anonymously. Averaging 34.8 points per game has never been done so quietly. Turning a season around -- from a rudderless 1-3 team to a dangerous 6-3 team -- has never happened so uncelebrated.
That's because in a region constructed out of a defending state champ (Sandy Creek) and a Class AAA semifinalist (Eastside) and quarterfinalist (Jackson), there was little room for anyone else to enter the conversation. And with Spalding returning star players from a playoff team, it seemed possible no Southern Crescent team -- let alone both Henry County and Stockbridge -- would make the playoffs.
Nevermind that Henry County had gone 27-8 the previous three seasons with two region championships. Nevermind the Warhawks had produced Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) talent. Nevermind the oldest school in the county had lost its best quarterback in program history (Drew Little) last season and remained a playoff contender with a first-year starter (Dylan Shaddix).
"We'd been looking pretty good the previous years and nobody was giving us any credit there with what we had done and kind of written us off," Rozier said. "I'm kind of proud of this team a little bit."
Rozier spoke highly of his team before the season. He thought this team would embody a blue-collar identity unique from the star-studded ones of recent years. But he also knew how much this team would have to overcome.
The Warhawks would have to play with Class AA numbers in a higher classification so it could be in a geographically-friendly region. The Warhawks would have to replace its quarterback again, and this time with one (Chris Moody) whose dual-threat skill set deviated from the pocket-passer prototype of Little and Shaddix.
Starting 1-3 shocked players. It didn't shock Rozier.
"I knew we were going to struggle real early on," Rozier said, "because we had a lot of new faces, especially at quarterback. ... It took us a couple games to find out what we really had."
Credit Rozier and his staff with making adjustments. They tweaked the offense to better suit Moody's skills, and then simplified it when he seemed overwhelmed. Since the Sandy Creek loss, Henry County's offense has been just as prolific as the past three seasons.
Credit Henry County's defense. It needed no soul-searching. It needed little tweaking. With junior defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson, who already has offers from Auburn and South Carolina, an experienced linebacker corps and talented secondary, the Warhawks defense looked playoff-caliber from the start.
Credit this team with building on the program's most successful era in its history, getting better and better each week, and doing it under the radar.
"What you like to see a team do is just get better as the season goes and progress in a manner where you're peaking at the right time," Rozier said. "I think we're doing that. We've shown that the last several weeks, but I think we can get even better than we've shown."
Brian Paglia covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.