Opportunity is a key word for the LaFayette Ramblers and the Murray County Indians in 2020.
This time of year, every high school football team talks about the opportunity to make the season special. Well, for these two northwest Georgia programs, qualifying for the state playoffs would surpass special after a combined 42 years without playing past game 10 of a season.
Each has reason to believe the drought might end this season. The opportunity — there's that word again — is there for both in Region 6-AAA after GHSA reclassification and realignment seemingly created the chance for a surprise team, or possibly two, to snag a playoff berth out of the nine-school league.
Add the fact that Murray has its most experienced team in more than a decade and LaFayette is dropping down from Class AAAA with a talented group of skill players and, well, let's have the head coaches spell it out.
"For us, it's been since 2005, so it's time," said Indians coach Chad Brewer, who took over in Chatsworth seven years ago.
Said Ramblers coach Paul Ellis: "One of my players told me the other day that it's been 27 years since LaFayette made the playoffs. It's year three for me, so it's time to see some results and end that drought."
LaFayette joined the region just as league bully Calhoun was moved up to Class AAAAA and 2019 playoff qualifier Haralson County also moved out. Rockmart moved in and immediately became the favorite. Reigning 6-AAA champ North Murray suffered significant graduation losses, but the Mountaineers are expected to be in playoff contention again.
The rest of 6-AAA — Adairsville, Coahulla Creek, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold and Sonoraville — went a combined 16-36 last year. Opportunity is indeed knocking.
'Focused and fearless'
Murray opened this season with last week's 47-20 victory over Southeast Whitfield, a team playing a nonregion schedule in hopes of building up the program. Many of the Indians' 23 seniors played big roles in the win: Davis Redwine rushed for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns, quarterback Kaleb Jones passed for three scores and ran for one, receiver Brannon Nuckolls caught five balls for 90 yards and two touchdowns and Carson Voiles had a team-high 12 tackles.
Most of the seniors also played in varsity games in 2018, an 0-10 season for the Indians, and most started during last year's four-win campaign.
"Eleven of our kids have played for four years, and that experience is invaluable," Brewer said. "I feel like it is always great to win your first game. It's great to see all of your hard work over the summer and fall pay off. They are focused and fearless, which is our team motto for the 2020 season."
Murray's program was thriving in the late 1990s and early 2000s under Bill Napier, who had a three-year run from 1999 to 2001 that included 29 wins and a trip to the Class AAA quarterfinals. However, in 2006 the school's enrollment pushed its athletic programs to Class AAAAA, and the Indians quickly fell off with consecutive 0-10 seasons in football. The talent pool was thinned when North Murray opened in 2010, although that also helped the Indians stay out of a higher classification.
Since 2005, Murray's football program has had one winning season (6-4 in 2016) and an overall record of 27-113.
"As far as the playoffs go, we just need to take what this season gives us, and that is one game at a time," Brewer said. "It would be great to break this 15-year curse, but there are a lot of football games to go before we will know where we stand."
Decades of frustration
LaFayette's most recent postseason appearance came in 1993 under Rayvan Teague, who took the Ramblers to the playoffs in three of his four seasons as coach. The Ramblers' most recent playoff win was in 1969. They've had two winning seasons since '93 and seven 5-5 campaigns.
Ellis isn't accustomed to sitting at home in the postseason after winning multiple region titles in Alabama, and he has stated that one of his main goals this season is to instill a winning attitude within the program. That's especially true after last year's 3-7 season in which the Ramblers lost their last three games by five or fewer points. Win those, and the postseason drought would have ended.
"That's been an emphasis for us," he said of finishing off games. "The record didn't show it, but we made some good strides last year and I expect more this year."
LaFayette, which opens its season Friday night against Model, will pin its playoff hopes on one of the best rushing games in the area. Running back Jamario Clements, a Times Free Press Dynamite Dozen selection, and quarterback Jaylon Ramsey combined for nearly 2,500 yards in 2019, and Ellis said Ramsey is more than capable of producing big numbers in the passing game with a year of starting under his belt.
The defense returns six starters and has experience at each level with lineman David Patterson, linebacker Hunter Deal and backs Mason Alexander and Brent Minor. And, as Ellis said early in training camp, the motivation to win is evident.
"These players have worked their tails off," he said. "They earned the right to be winners."