Dawson County is entering the 2012 season with arguably higher expectations than the program has ever experienced.
Perennial powerhouse Buford is the runaway favorite to win the new-look Region 7-AAA, but the senior-laden Tigers are the trendy pick to join the Wolves at the top.
East Hall, which is not without its own aspirations of a playoff berth, would like nothing more than to spoil Dawson County’s rise before it even lifts off when the teams meet in a region battle to open the season Friday night.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. in Dawsonville.
“They feel the same way we do, that both of us have a legitimate shot at winding up in that top four in our region,” Tigers coach Jeff Lee said. “It being the first game, and the first region game, it should be a very interesting game.”
Lee and Vikings coach Bryan Gray opted to move the game, which was originally scheduled for Oct. 12, up to Friday in part to give themselves an extra bye week during the season. The only downside: there’s no time to smooth any early-season wrinkles that the summer hasn’t already ironed out.
Gray said he most wants to see his team come out relaxed.
“The bad part about playing a region game early is that people put more emphasis on it than they need to, and the reality is there’s 10 games,” Gray said. “And I think we’ve all seen every year that things happen in the middle of the year that you never would’ve expected. So if we’re successful on Friday night, then we’ve got to guard against letdown. And if we’re not successful, we’re just got to realize it’s one game and we’ve got nine more to go.”
Lee is taking a somewhat different approach, stressing that Friday’s game is the first step in what he hopes will be a playoff march.
“It’s big beyond just being the first game,” Lee said. “We try to place our guys in different situations throughout the summer. We’ve scrimmaged at a couple of different places around here, under the lights with all the fans and people who can’t usually make it to afternoon practice. We’ve tried to put (our players) in a different situation with the same thought process — that this game is going to be different. It is the first game, but it’s also the first region game. You win this game and you’re in the driver’s seat for first place. You lose, then you’ve got to beat the right people to get in the mix.”
For the Tigers, 2012 has been pointed to as the possible peak in its current cycle of athletes. In 2009 they won one game. In the 2010, they won three. This fall, 20 seniors return from the squad that went 5-5 last season, including the leading passer, top four receivers, top three rushers, three of the top four tacklers and four of five starters on the offensive line.
It’s led to a noticeable increase in preseason attention for a program that has never won more than eight games and last reached the playoffs in 2004, Lee’s second year on the job.
For the Vikings, Gray is hopeful the fall brings a continuation of his program’s own upward trend. Identical to Dawson County, East Hall has increased its win totals from one to three to five over the past three
And while the Vikings don’t quite have Dawson County wealth of returning talent, they do bring back eight starters on defense — including the top four tacklers — and six on offense.
The most noticeable piece missing from last year’s team is running back/defensive back/return specialist Jamond Witt, who ran for 1,211 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. In his absence, Gray said he plans to use a committee approach in the backfield and ride the hot hand. Senior Austen Mahaffey (416 rushing yards last season) leads a deep stable at running back.
“You know sometimes it’s a good thing and a bad thing to have a super player who’s very good,” Gray said. “We found last year, kids would kind of sit and wait for Jamond to make a play. And that kind of worked against us, I think. Now, we’ve got four or five kids that are talented at running back. As a team, we’ll be a stronger unit because we’ll have more weapons to utilize.”
Gray added that his primary concern — other than the Tigers’ offensive talent — will be getting his own young linemen up to speed. Any worries should be somewhat allayed by the up-front presence of seniors Devonte Benton (6-foot-5, 263 pounds) and Braden Jarrard (6-5, 247).
“We just have to get some continuity on offense and I think we’ll be pretty good,” Gray said.
Continuity is one thing Dawson County brings to the table in abundance. Led by quarterback Tyler Dominy (1,890 passing yards, 18 TDs in 2011), virtually every key piece returns for the Tigers offense.
Gray had high praise for the bunch.
“They’re extremely talented on offense; one of the better offenses I’ve seen since I’ve been at East Hall,” he said. “Great passing, great running ability, big plays, explosive — so we’ve got our hands full. They’ve got linemen, they’re a senior-dominated team. They’re really, really good.”
The Tigers scrimmaged Towns County last week and came away with a 38-6 win that showcased their talent and left Lee satisfied. Dominy threw for more than 300 yards in one half of action and Chris Sayler scored through the air and on the ground.
Sayler, a junior who until last season played eight-man football in North Dakota, provides yet another weapon to go along with receivers Bruce Clark (53 receptions, 10 TDs in 2011) and Will Anglin (374 receiving yards in 2011), and running back Zack Martin (1,201 rushing yards, 17 TDs in 2011).
Junior Cody Lamar is also expected to see key time at running back for the Tigers.