Stockbridge finally earned its seat at the cool kids’ table last season. The Tigers pried a playoff monkey that would dwarf King Kong off their backs, scoring a point for every one of their 46 years of postseason exclusion — and then some.
“It was big for our school,” coach Kevin Whitley said. “You’d have thought we won the state championship.”
But just as the Tigers’ 49-0 win over Jackson opened the front door to the postseason, their 49-0 loss to Peach County two weeks later got them hustled out the rear exit.
“I don’t think we were mentally ready for it last year,” said linebacker Jayshun Allen. “I think this year we are. Everybody’s synching together better.”
Said Whitley, “We got a taste of the playoffs last year. Now, we’re thinking beyond this year. This year, getting there isn’t enough.”
Everywhere Whitley has coached, the team has improved — be it North Springs, where his .500 record in 2002 remains the best the Spartans have done in nine years, or a Creekside team that had missed the playoffs three straight years before Whitley got it back on track in his second season with the Seminoles.
So what he’s done at Stockbridge shouldn’t be a surprise. He has instilled confidence in his players, so that when a questioner talks to Allen about the team’s playoff chances, the discussion is framed in whens not ifs.
“We are going to make the playoffs,” Allen said, emphasizing his words with certainty.
The Tigers looked good in their scrimmage last week against Woodland, hammering the Wolfpack 41-7. Even in the lopsided margin, Whitley saw evidence of the Tigers’ youth.
“We did what we needed to do, took advantage of their mistakes and got on a little roll,” Whitley said. “The score was a little misleading.”
Stockbridge fumbled eight times, losing possession twice. Most of the mistakes occurred on center-quarterback exchanges, “things that can be corrected,” Whitley said.
Those are the kinds of things that gets a team beaten during the season and one of the prime directives for the Tigers this season is for them not to beat themselves.
“If somebody’s better than you, I can live with that,” Whitley said. “It’s when you give the game up that bothers me. My first year here, we were talented but had a lot of character issues. There were easily four games we could’ve won if we had been able to get out of our own way. Good teams don’t beat themselves.”
Certain things are givens for the Tigers: Leon Prunty at quarterback, running the triple-option and getting noticed by colleges like South Florida, Memphis and Louisville. Allen at linebacker. Curtis Lindsay at running back, though he’s trying to overcome a knee injury at the moment.
Other things are pleasant surprises, perhaps most notably the play of Billy Burke on the offensive line. Between last season and this, Burke has improved noticeably.
“He’s a kid you could put anywhere on the line,” said Whitley, who’s likely to use him at center. “Last year, he wasn’t very good but he knew all the positions. This year, he’s our best lineman. He makes the calls. He’s worked hard. He had a good game the other night.”
Malik Bryan, a sophomore running back who transferred from Morrow, turned some heads by running hard in a reserve role in the scrimmage.
The Stockbridge defense held Woodland to one first down and no big plays. The Wolfpack’s longest gain was 9 yards. Allen said that’s because the Tigers’ defense should be taken seriously.
“Because we’ve got the weapons,” Allen said. “We’ve got good defensive backs, good linebackers, good linemen. But people don’t take us seriously. They think we’re a joke.”
There’s not a whole lot of difference between a punch line and a punching bag. The good thing for Stockbridge, which once went 11 consecutive years without a winning record, is that it’s neither.