Football

Stockbridge football looking to extend Thanksgiving tradition with playoff win against Buford

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Coach Kevin Whitley’s 87 wins in nine years at Stockbridge matches the total wins of eight different coaches over a span of 27 seasons. (Photo: Gabriel Stovall)

gstovall@thecrescentbuzz.com

STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — It’s easy to tell when it’s Thanksgiving around these parts.

There’s the distinctive, crispy chill that permeates the air around this time. The trees shed many of their leaves, and the ones luckily enough to stay attached to a branch trade in their solid green color for an assortment of autumn reds, oranges and browns.

Families gather around the smells of holiday cuisine. Streets are lined with colorful houses and businesses getting a head start on looking like Christmas.

And then, of course, the Stockbridge Tigers are still playing football.

On Thanksgiving morning, while others are enjoying extra hours of sleep, or being awakened by the aroma of good food, the second-ranked Stockbridge football team gathered at 8:30 a.m. to do what coach Kevin Whitley loves to do at this time of year — put in work.

“We expect to be practicing and playing on Thanksgiving,” Whitley said. “That’s a staple and expectation in our program now.”

And, how.

It’s so much an expectation now that, next month when Whitley finalizes the football calendar for the 2018 season, he will include practice dates for the week of next year’s Thanksgiving.

“I tell our guys, if you don’t want to still be playing and practicing at this time of year, you can go home and visit your grandma or your family,” Whitley said. “But don’t come out here.”

In Whitley’s nine years at the helm of Stockbridge football, he has ushered teams to this point of the football calendar for six straight seasons — an unheard of feat for Stockbridge football before 2010 when the Tigers first crashed the postseason party.

That unprecedented success will be on full display Friday as Stockbridge lines up against No. 3 Buford in a Friday night home game for the chance to likely face top-ranked Rome in the Class AAAAA semifinals next week. Whitley knows the task against Buford will be daunting, based on the Wolves’ own Thanksgiving track record.

“When you get down to the last eight teams in the playoffs, everybody’s tough,” Whitley said. “Buford’s no different. Their kids expect to be playing on Thanksgiving as well. I think this is our sixth straight year doing it, but I looked up and Buford’s in their 18th straight year playing at this time. That’s about as long as I’ve been coaching, so it won’t be anything new for those guys. They’ve got a lot of great tradition.”

It’s not out of the question to believe that when Whitley looks at a program like Buford, he sees some of the traditional success he’d like Stockbridge to be known for. And after his ninth season, he’s well on his way to building that.

Consider that before his now seven straight seasons of nine wins or better, the three previous best Stockbridge teams in school history were a trio of 7-3 squads — one under coach Mike Creasman in 1993, one back in 1982 and one in 1968 in the program’s fifth year of existence. All of those were non-playoff seasons.

To put Whitley’s effect on the program into even greater perspective, also consider this: In order to match Whitley’s current nine-year total of 87 wins at Stockbridge, you’d have to reach back 27 seasons and add up the wins of eight different Stockbridge coaches.

In addition, NCAA Division I football programs have built a bit of a mini pipeline through Henry County’s second oldest high school since Whitley’s been around. Currently four Tigers — LB/DE Brenton Cox (Ohio State), S Nasir Greer (Wake Forest), S Mike Price (Appalachian State) and DE Abu Bangura (Georgia Southern) — are committed to NCAA Power Five schools. A fifth, Marquez Ezzard, a 4-star prospect at wide receiver, is expected to be soon.

Ezzard recently de-committed from Florida State and will be taking an official visit to Oregon this weekend. Whitley says this many early big-school commitments is a first for his program — also a sign of Stockbridge’s establishment as a relative high school football stalwart in Georgia.

“Definitely, as far as early commits, this is the most we’ve ever had,” Whitley said. “Three may be set to leave in December to go to school.”

Whitley attributes some of that to the early signing period that has “sped up the system a bit.” But it still doesn’t take away from the achievements of his athletes.

“When you work hard for four years in high school and you have the ability, you can put yourself in a position to where you’ll be able to play Division I football,” Whitley said. “And these guys have done that.”

But with all the recent success at Stockbridge, there’s one thing his teams haven’t done yet. And that’s get over that hump to go play for a state championship.

“We always talk about that,” he said. “The last six years, we’ve given ourselves a chance to get it done, and it always comes down to about two or three plays that we just don’t make. The problem is, you don’t know when those two or three plays are coming in the course of a game. So you have to finish. Finish it. That’s what we keep talking about.”

Last year’s season finale, a 28-21 semifinals loss to Rome, was particularly heartbreaking. Stockbridge seemingly had a chance to go on a relatively short drive to tie the game after its defense forced a punt. But Ezzard muffed that punt at the Rome 48-yard line with 1:32 left.

“At Rome, we had our shots last year,” Whitley said. “But then there’s a bad penalty or a drop or something. And it’s simple. You make those plays, you advance. If you don’t, get ready for Christmas.”

Ezzard and senior quarterback, Gabe McKenzie aren’t ready to talk about Christmas yet, though — unless the Christmas talk means celebration of a state crown.

“We don’t want to be done yet,” Ezzard said. “I mean, we’re coming out this Friday against a good Buford team and we just gotta play strong. We have to play all four quarters, because that’s a good team we’re going to face.”

McKenzie knows it too. But with a potential semifinals rematch with Rome still a ways off — the Rome Wolves have to take care of business at Starr’s Mill Friday just as Stockbridge needs to beat Buford to make that happen — the senior signal caller says focus on the task at hand is the name of the game for now.

“This team is so locked in,” McKenzie said. “We know what we have to do to win. I think this team is more equipped than any other since I’ve been here to win a state championship. But we know what we have to focus on first.”

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