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Game of the Week: Playoff-bound Chestatee football playing with newfound passion, belief
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Chestatee's Austin Gean chases down Habersham Central's Aaron Galloway during the War Eagles' game with the Raiders in September at War Eagle Stadium.

Playoff capsules

Throughout the season, Chestatee head football coach Shaun Conley has had several of his players approach him and say, ‘coach, it’s fun again.’

One year ago, the War Eagles were staring at a winless record. Flash forward to today, Conley and his “passionate” coaching staff have the War Eagles (4-6) in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, as they face No. 1 Cartersville (10-0) on Friday to open the Class AAAA state tournament.

The War Eagles face their toughest task of the year in Purple Hurricanes quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is the No. 1 college prospect in the nation for the class of 2018. He led Cartersville to a Class AAAA championship last year at the Georgia Dome, in which they defeated three-time defending state champion Buford, 10-0. He currently has offers flowing in from most Division I programs.

Conley said they haven’t looked at this game any differently. He sees this as both a challenge and an opportunity for his kids: win, lose or draw.

This will be just the fifth time in the program’s 15 years it has made the playoffs. The War Eagles’ only playoff win occurred back in 2013, during which the War Eagles set a program record in wins with nine.

“If you want to know how to become a championship program, then you have to play those championship programs,” Conley said. “Cartersville right now is a championship program. They’re the No. 1 team in AAAA, and I think they’re the No. 7 team overall in Georgia, in all classifications.

“For us to be able to go down there and be a part of that atmosphere and to compete against that level is a great opportunity for these kids.”

The road to the playoffs has been a long trek for the War Eagles, recording just a single win in the previous two seasons combined before Conley’s arrival last December.

In order to embed a new mindset in a team, it helps to start with the senior leadership.

One month into his tenure, Conley needed to find a way to make them better leaders on this football team, so he enrolled the group in a leadership course headed by former Flowery Branch assistant coach Brian Hall three days a week in the winter months. And to tighten the bonds, the group spent time together off the practice field, even serving the

Thumbs Up Mission for the Keaton Franklin Coker Foundation, a non-profit created on the basis of supporting families affected by cancer.

That whole process blossomed into a newfound belief according to senior captain and linebacker Austin Gean.

Gean, who has been with the team through the good times and the bad since his freshman season, said some of the players realized this was a different unit after coming within seven points of North Hall on Aug. 19. That realization followed with an emotional win over East Hall in Week 2, snapping an 18-game losing streak dating all the way back to Sept. 26, 2014.

“Playing as a team and playing as a family allowed us to break that losing streak,” said Gean, a three-year starter for the War Eagles. “That night there were a lot of smiles, some tears, but way more smiles. That just made us more hungry for wins, and that led onto two, three and beating White County to get back into the playoffs.”

“They’ve bought into what we’ve been telling them, and that’s one of the things we told them at the very beginning, ‘We’ll go as far as you guys lead us,’” Conley said. “And they’ve led us right into the playoffs. It’s really special for this group because they’ve been through a lot.”

Conley gives all the credit to Chestatee High’s administration for allowing him to bring in a committed staff with a winning background. They are a group that has developed positive and impactful relationships.

“Seriously, I wish I could take credit for it. But I can’t,” Conley laughed. “It’s a great group of guys and they’ve got these kids believing, and that’s kind of special. That’s the thing I’m probably most proud of, is the kids actually starting to believe and have fun again.”

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