Thad Burgess believes his basketball team is thoroughly battle-tested for the playoffs. Getting a No. 1 seed to the postseason didn't come easy.
Burgess, the ninth-year coach of the Dawson County boys, was as elated as anyone when the Tigers (23-6) ran through the Region 8-AA tournament last weekend with wins against East Hall (21-7) and Jefferson (19-9), capturing the program's first region championship since 1969.
"To beat those two on back-to-back nights is something special," Burgess said. "The Jeffersons and East Halls of the world are some great programs."
The reward for Dawson County is to open the Class AA state playoffs against Region 7-AA's fourth-seeded Calhoun (11-17) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Dawsonville.
The young Tigers, who start four juniors and a sophomore, say they're taking the success in stride.
They know it's important to enjoy the experience, but not to linger on past accomplishments too long if they hope to make a deep playoff run.
"We know we may not be the most athletic team, but we know if we play hard, we'll be fine," said junior guard Will Anglin.
Playing in a county with only one high school, Dawson County's run of success has been the talk of the town.
Burgess says he's been flooded with kind words by not only community members, but also basketball coaches around the area.
Players have fed off the support of the student body, which brought a boisterous group to last weekend's region tournament at Hart County, despite the two-hour drive each way from Dawsonville to Hartwell.
"Having our students come out and support us in the region tournament was huge," Anglin said. "If you can get high school kids to drive three hours on a Saturday to support the team, that's impressive.
"Everyone on our side was going crazy when we won it."
The Tigers' play was equally special, despite only playing five players for most of the run to the region championship.
Dawson County's leading scorer Tyler Dominy, who averages 15 points per game, finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocked shots against Jefferson in the final, while 6-foot-4 junior post player Bruce Clark pulled down 17 rebounds.
Meanwhile, junior guard Gunnar Armstrong had a run of 24 consecutive free throws over those two games.
"And we have great chemistry on this team," Burgess said. "When they go out on the court, they expect to win."
The biggest thing Dawson County showed in the victory against the Dragons was that it wasn't going to get flustered when things weren't going well.
Trailing by 10 late in the third quarter, the Tigers put on a run to take the lead in the fourth quarter with Armstrong's free-throw shooting and a big 3-pointer, along with Dominy's 10 fourth-quarter points.
"Our guys wouldn't back down," Burgess said.
And the win for the Tigers against East Hall was one players say was a signature moment for the program. That night, four Tigers scored in double figures.
"East Hall is one of the most well-respected programs there is," Dominy said.
Burgess said his team's strong floor chemistry is the main component that hasn't changed during the year.
That's why he feels comfortable playing the same five guys for most of the game, but also counts on some subs who have helped the team when called into action.
Burgess says his players take a lot of pride in growing up in Dawsonville and coming up through the program.
"I still remember the first speech that coach Burgess gave us when I got on the team," Anglin said. "He told us that we're going to win with what we got.
"And he demands the best out of us."
The Tigers' biggest team-building exercise over the summer came when Dominy, the program's only returning starter, went down with a broken ankle and missed three weeks of games.
Burgess says that the team went on to play very well during a slate of 30 summer-league games, mostly against larger schools.
"The team really came together as one," Dominy said. "We have guys that don't start but have a lot of ability."