COMMERCE — Two state championships. Five trips to the championship game. Ten appearances in the state semifinals. Seventeen region titles. Thirteen straight playoff berths.
Commerce coach Steve Savage knows the tradition of Tiger football; he helped build on it as a captain on Ray Lamb’s 1972 state semifinalist team. And in the 20 years since he succeeded Lamb in 1989, the Tigers have missed the playoffs only twice.
But history is just that. It won’t make any blocks or record any tackles Friday night when Commerce (6-4, No. 2 8-A) plays host to Landmark Christian (6-4, No. 3 5-A) in the first round of the state playoffs. That’s why instead of looking back, Savage and his Tigers are looking ahead at the challenge — and the opportunity — that’s before them.
“Young’uns can’t remember what they had for breakfast, much less what they did last year,” Savage said. “For me, I’d like for this team to play a round or two, and I do think we have a chance Friday night, but there’s not a whole lot of difference between us and Landmark Christian.”
But some Tigers haven’t forgotten last season, when they were eliminated in the first round and finished the season with a 5-6 mark, only the second losing season in Savage’s tenure. This year’s senior leaders were sparsely used freshmen the last time a Commerce team made it out of the first round. The Tigers advanced all the way to the semifinals that year.
“We definitely don’t want to be one and done again this year,” said senior linebacker Josh Streetman, who leads the team with 99 stops. “We want to go three or four deep this year, and we have the team to do so.”
It may not have seemed that way when Commerce started the season 1-3. The Tigers dropped the opener to rival Jefferson, and after a win over Morgan County, lost back-to-back games by a touchdown to Lincoln County and Franklin County. But Streetman and Savage agreed that the team’s confidence never wavered.
“We knew we would come back and have a winning season,” Streetman said. “When three of your four losses are to region champions, there ain’t a whole lot you can do about that.”
The season turned the Tigers’ way after a hard-fought loss to No. 3 Lincoln County. The next week they stared down region rival Athens Academy and came out with a 28-7 win that catapulted Commerce to five wins in six games to end the regular season.
Senior running back Deon Brock’s performance during the stretch run has been a big reason for the Tigers’ success. Brock leads the area with 1,415 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on 10.8 yards per carry. In the last six games alone, he’s run for 915 yards, including two 200-yard games.
Despite a 28-3 loss to No. 1 Wesleyan, the Tigers are scoring 32 points per game during that span.
“We’ve just had good game plans,” Brock said. “We’ve come out in practice and worked on it, and then gone out in games and executed and just tried to whip the guys front of us.”
This week, the team lining up opposite of the Tigers will have the distinct size advantage, Savage said. But, then again, that’s nothing new.
“This is one of the smallest teams we’ve had,” the coach said. “Every team we’ve played has been bigger than us.
“But Landmark is probably the biggest team we’ve played all year. They’re gonna average over 250 (pounds) on the offensive line and they’ve got two defensive linemen going 270-plus, and they ain’t fat guys, either.”
Savage got the chance to watch Landmark in person Saturday when the War Eagles wrapped up their playoff bid with a 24-20 win over Mount Pisgah Christian. For the season, Landmark is scoring 31 points per game out of a mix of I-formation and spread offenses, according to Savage, and has the ability to maintain a run-pass balance.
The Landmark football program launched in the early 1990s and can’t match Commerce’s tradition, but this will be the school’s ninth consecutive trip to the playoffs, including a trip to the quarterfinals in 2003. The War Eagles have been eliminated in the first round each of the last two seasons.
Commerce won the only previous meeting, 27-0 in the second round of the 1997 playoffs. In that game, freshman Monte Williams, who went on to become the leading rusher in Georgia high school history, set the still-standing school record for longest run from scrimmage with a 97-yard score. Earlier this year, Brock came within one yard of tying the record with a 96-yard touchdown run in the Athens Academy game.