Character and unity.
The Habersham Central coaches stress effort, fundamentals and execution, but above all, they want their players to focus on these two words.
“That’s our motto this year,” Raiders quarterback Kevin Ellison said. “We express that a lot on Friday night and throughout practice, so that we can be proud of ourselves. I think we’ve grown a lot throughout the season because we all came together this year.”
And coming together may have been the most important thing the Raiders did.
After a 2010 season in which they won just three games, the Raiders expected a much improved team in 2011. But, after winning its opener, Habersham Central coughed up a big lead against Cedar Shoals, ultimately losing the game by a touchdown.
It would have been easy to revert to the same lowered expectations of the past two seasons, but instead, Ellison said, it was an opportunity to come together and grow as a team.
“I think that was important for us,” he said. “It helped us mature a lot, because we realized that we had to play two halves of football, and I think it helped us come together.”
Now, Habersham Central sits on the cusp of its first playoff game since 2007. Habersham Central visits Chattahoochee at 7:30 tonight in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs, and it all comes down to the strong “family” the team has become.
Fullback/defensive end Patrick Burns has played on the varsity team since he was a sophomore. In his first year, he said, the team had potential, but did not play together as a group. That team won four games. Last year, the team was a tight-knit group, but lacked the talent.
“But this year, we’ve got the talent, and everyone is together to back it up,” he said.
The team’s unquestioned leader has been Ellison, who leads the area with 1,969 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground. While he can’t always beat you through the air, he has been quietly efficient and saves his biggest plays for when he tucks the ball and runs.
One such play occurred against Clarke Central. Ellison broke out of the pocket to his right, cut around the corner and, running toward a potential tackler, left his feet, hurdled the player and gained an extra chunk of yardage.
“They thought I was crazy,” Ellison said, laughing.
But it’s plays like this that separate Ellison from others and define Habersham Central as a team.
“It’s been a fun season,” he said. “And that’s what makes me love coming out here and playing every day. The biggest part of the game of football is that it will give you knowledge of how special your teammates are, and I feel like my teammates have been a big part of what I do during the game. We just keep each other lifted up.”
Habersham Central coach Stuart Cunningham notes this attitude as a factor into the strong leadership capabilities Ellison has shown this year.
“His leadership is his best quality,” Cunningham said. “He’s just a strong character guy and a guy that players want to follow.”
But it’s not as if the season has always been easy for the Raiders.
It took until the last game of the regular season, a win over Rockdale County, for the team to clinch a playoff berth. It lost three more games after its loss to Cedar Shoals (at Flowery Branch and Clarke Central, and at home against Heritage).
But the team never questioned its ability, nor its goals for the season.
“Without leadership and maturity, you can’t win in this region,” Burns said.
Now, the Raiders must face Chattahoochee, a team that hasn’t lost since its season opener.
Cunningham said he expects his offense to play well, and stressed the need to tackle well.
“We’ve got to wrap up,” he said. “We have to execute and not give them any extra chances.”
Win or lose, the players feel like the season has been a success, but Ellison still had just one goal for the game.
“Win,” he said. “It’s a hard game, but if we win, I feel like it will give us a lot of confidence going forward.”