HAMPTON, Ga. — While I would not label myself a sports prognosticator, I do feel that I have a good sense of when teams and sports programs are about to turn the corner.
Going into the 2016 season, the Dutchtown Bulldogs have the look and feel of a team that’s ready to establish itself in Region 4-AAAAA.
This will be the first year in new regions after the latest Georgia High School Association realignment process, which also signals the first year of an almost all-Henry County region in quite some time — the one exception being the Jones County Greyhounds.
And so these teams, while somewhat familiar with each other, will begin to feel each other out in 2016 as local and region rivals.
With realignment, this is as good a time as any for the Bulldogs to establish themselves in their new region after progressing in each of Head Coach Mark Myers’ first two seasons. Both the 2014 and 2015 campaigns featured three-game winning streaks down the stretch before those seasons ended with a loss in the state play-in game, each time, to Starr’s Mill.
So here we are going into the third year under Myers and, from my vantage point, they look poised to breakout out of their region, and into the state playoffs.
To be sure, you’re always cautious of evaluating teams through the non-contact camps of the summer. There’s only so much to discern when they’re wearing shorts, and not wearing shoulder pads, during combines and 7-on-7s.
But the performance of the Bulldogs has been promising since they finished second at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) pro-style combine in early May. It was a grueling, half-day event of drills that showcased 18 teams from all over South Metro Atlanta.
From there, Dutchtown finished second at the Aero 7-on-7 Adidas State Championship at Locust Grove in June — a year after winning the same tournament, while competing against teams from all over the state. It was the third straight year Dutchtown made the tournament’s finals. The growth and momentum continued as Dutchtown took part in the Spalding team camp earlier this week.
“Spalding was by far the best camp we’ve had,” said Myers. “The offense was clicking. Guys knew where they were supposed to go and where they needed to be. Defensively, the same thing.”
The Bulldogs were so impressive, in fact, that Myers said he received rave reviews on his squad from other coaches.
“They said they noticed a difference with our team,” he said. “I feel real good about where we are going into the season. I just hope we continue to improve and get better. Obviously, we’re going to make mistakes, but we’ll have to correct them. Naturally in year three, you should start to see some fruits of your labor from what you’ve been building.
“I think our kids are now more comfortable with what we are trying to do and accomplish. And anytime you’re more comfortable, you develop a little more confidence and a little more, how the kids say, swagger about yourself.”
There’s definitely a togetherness that seems to be developing among the young team, despite the graduation of a couple of key seniors.
The Bulldogs’ junior class is their biggest as they return only three starters on defense and four on offense. But this is by far the most depth that Myers has enjoyed at the skill positions. Most of the rising juniors also received a taste of some experience at the varsity level last year.
One of those rising juniors is quarterback Nolan Gomes who will be looked upon to assume a leadership position. Whereas the graduated K’lin Epps made the offense go last year, it will be incumbent upon Gomes to guide the Bulldogs immediately in 2016. And it’s a challenge that the new signal caller’s head coach is not shy in laying down.
“He has to be the leader and the general of the offense,” Myers said. “He has to be the guy in that department to step up. Gomes will have to get a little more vocal. He’s more of a lead by example type. But we’re asking him to be more of a vocal leader.”
Gomes will be helped by rising senior wide receiver Alyondre Swift. He’s Dutchtown’s biggest threat offensively, and one that will help ease the transition for Gomes once those Friday night lights go on next month.
“Swift is a very fast receiver so he makes things easier for me,” Gomes said. “I like fast receivers. He gets open and he knows how to re-route. We’ve really gotten more comfortable throughout the summer.”
Swift is also excited about this season and thinks they’ll continue to grow as a program, getting to and going deep in the playoffs. He also knows he’ll have to be a steady hand in helping his young quarterback deal with some of the pressures that lie ahead.
“I’ve played with (Gomes) since rec ball, so we have that connection,” Swift said. “Playing varsity last year, I know how to deal with the pressure. So I’ll be there to help him, talk him through any pre-game jitters and make sure he’s straight.”
For Gomes, he’s anxious to do what he’s been preparing for the last two years.
“We’re ready to go and do good things this year,” he said. “I’ve been waiting on this since my freshman year, and now is my opportunity.”