CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — As much as Josh Groce felt this season would be a significant step forward for the Gordon Lee football program, the Trojans' second-year head coach is too old school to believe anything before he sees it.
After all, Groce has watched this movie before. It's the one where the team has high hopes, gets off to a strong start and then fails to live up to the hype. It was just a year ago that the Trojans started 2-0 but won only two more games. In 2016 they started 3-0 and ended 5-5; in 2013, a 3-0 start was followed by six consecutive losses.
So why does this year's 3-0 start feel different to Groce, who has spent 12 of his 16 years as a coach in Chickamauga? The first moment of proof came two weeks ago as the Trojans, a GHSA Class A public program, were staring at a 15-0 deficit against Class AAA's Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, with the score seemingly about to get even worse for Gordon Lee.
"That's where we showed a little bit of maturity, because we didn't freak out and get into panic mode, which is something that's happened in the past," Groce said. "LFO was at our 3 about to go up three scores late in the first half, but we forced a fumble and went 97 yards in three minutes to go to halftime down eight.
"At that point we knew we had it and that this season was going to be different."
The Trojans then scored 22 points in the second half while keeping the Warriors off the board. They followed that with a rousing 56-34 win over LaFayette, the second time they had reached 50 points in three games, with the opener a 50-28 victory against Dade County.
The 135 points scored are just one fewer than the Trojans produced in 10 games last year, when they were held to fewer than 10 points in five games. Groce attributes the dramatic turnaround to two factors: health and rare depth for a Class A team.
"Really, the biggest thing right now is that my entire defensive line is not having to play offense, and vice versa for the offensive line," he said. "We have a little more drive in us in the fourth quarter. It's rare for a single-A school to be able to do that. In fact, it's the first time in my 16 years in coaching that I've been able to do it.
"It's helping us to stay healthy, and in the fourth quarter we're still hopping around and ready to go. That's not only big for us, it's big for other teams to see us like that. They're leaning over with hands on their sides, and we're still hopping."
Jackson Moore is one of the beneficiaries of the added depth. The senior defensive tackle was a two-way starter the past two seasons.
"It's amazing," Moore said. "I go out on defense and we get a stop, and I go to the sideline, get a sip of water, watch the tablet with our defensive coaches and make adjustments. Our depth and conditioning have been the difference in all three games because we are able to wear teams down."
The depth extends to the offensive backfield, where the Trojans have six backs capable of starting. Four of them — 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore Bo Rhudy (330 rushing yards), Cade Peterson (297, eight touchdowns), Cody Thomas (166) and Brody Cobb (127) — rotate regularly.
"We have depth out of the wazoo in the backfield," Groce said, beaming as he described a group that has already amassed 1,042 yards. "We knew what we had in Cody Thomas, Cade Peterson and Brody Cobb, but then you add Bo Rhudy and Penn Askew, a couple of other sophomores, and it's fun to watch."
The Trojans have also grown closer due to adversity. The COVID-19 pandemic affected every team, but instead of Gordon Lee coaches being forced to find ways to keep players safe while still working out, the team's seniors stepped up and made sure everyone was accountable for doing the work and doing it safely.
They also played a large role in keeping the team together after a video surfaced this summer showing a group of students, including several Gordon Lee players, using a racial slur directed at a black athlete at another school.
What followed could be the defining moment for the program. Apologies were made, suspensions handed out and awareness of the impact of such actions was hammered home.
"We preach to our kids that even when bad things happen, there has to be growth to come out of it," Groce said. "We have to learn to grow from our problems. We've been able to do that, and it helps to have a junior- and senior-heavy team to lean on in the tough times.
"I don't know that we have individual leaders, but we have a senior class of 16 that has taken on that role, and it's made all the difference."