By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
High school football: Leopards' dream season continues
Placeholder Image
More high school football coverage at The Blitz
Some might have called it a step back. Others might have gone as far as to call it a mistake.
Blair Armstrong calls it a dream come true.

In 2007 he left behind Peachtree Ridge, the defending Class AAAAA co-state champs, to take over at Banks County, a Class AA program that hadn’t had a winning season in nearly a decade.

It was move that puzzled some fans, but it wasn’t as if the rural-raised Armstrong was desperate to get out of sprawling Gwinnett County. He wasn’t just jumping ship for a job that came open. He had scouted programs all over the state. Banks County was where he wanted to be.

“Actually, I was looking for a program that hadn’t had much success,” Armstrong said. “I’ve never taken over a winning program in my career. I like to see the look in kids’ eyes who haven’t won when they do start winning.”

Armstrong calls that look his reward, but the Banks County players and fans are the ones reaping the more tangible benefits these days. Friday, for the first time since Nov. 21, 1997, Banks County will play in a postseason football game.

The confirmation came after last week’s 35-14 win over Union County. The team huddled in the end zone, awaiting the results of the North Oconee-Fannin County game, which was in overtime. A North Oconee win meant a playoff berth for the Leopards. It meant that they wouldn’t have to settle for being happy with a winning season, that the seniors who Armstrong credits with turning the program around would get to extend their careers by at least one more game.

Then the call came. North Oconee 21, Fannin County 14.

“You would have thought we just won the Super Bowl,” Armstrong said.

The celebration that ensued is a memory Leopards senior quarter Chris Porter said will stick with him.
“The emotional feel of it,” Porter said. “Especially being with all my teammates and the fans and the coaching staff ... just looking around and seeing all the smiles ... it was great.”

By all accounts, Friday’s playoff date puts the Leopards ahead of schedule.

In 2007, Armstrong’s first season, Banks County went 4-6. It was only the third losing season in the coach’s 31-year career, but it was as many wins as the Leopards had in the previous two years combined.

Coming to Banks County, Armstrong planned to see progress by the third or fourth season, when all the pieces of the program were in place and the players had become comfortable in the new system. But upon arrival, he said he found “a good core nucleus of juniors that were serious about wanting to win and were willing to pay the price.”

To Armstrong, that means long hours lifting weights after school, running away the free time in the summer, committing to learning a new playbook, and placing trust in a new coaching staff.

None of that was a problem, according to Leopards senior running back Justin Beasley. Still, he’s a little surprised by the quick turnaround.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen this fast,” said Beasley, the area’s leading rushing with more than 2,000 yards. “But looking back over the last couple of years, we’ve worked so hard to get here, and I know we’re doing good for the future of the program.”

Now the Leopards must learn quickly what playoff football is all about: one goal achieved, a greater challenge just days away.

Banks County will travel to take on No. 10 Calhoun, a team on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to postseason tradition. The Yellow Jackets clinched their eighth consecutive Region 7-AA championship last week with a 28-27 win over then-No. 2 Pepperell.

“They’re a good, solid, well-coached AA team,” Armstrong said. “They’ve been in their program and been successful in it for a while now, so they bring some advantages to the table, especially at home. We’re the out-of-town guys, the upstarts.”

That’s fine by the Leopards. What matters is that they’re there.

“We’re starting to turn the corner as a program,” Armstrong said. “We’ve been making the long, slow turn for a while and we’re finally starting to get it headed in the right direction. That’s why this playoff berth is huge; just to prove to young kids that it’s an attainable goal. You just have to work hard for it.”
Friends to Follow social media