This week Emanuel County Institute, the defending Class A state champion and No. 1 team in the state, is visiting the No. 5 Blue Devils on Friday night at 7:30 in a showdown that will send the winner to the state semifinals, a round to which Bremen hasn’t advanced since 1983. It’s an exciting moment for Bremen.
“It’s just great because we know we have to beat a team like this to win everything,” senior defensive end/tight end Jay Stansberry said.
And after previously not having a game decided by single digits all season, the Blue Devils’ eight-point win last week could serve as a learning experience, according to senior defensive lineman Michael Bexley.
“It showed us what we need to work on,” Bexley said.
Bulldog coach Milan Turner said it’s amazing how Rockmart, in a 39-20 early-season win against Bremen, is one of the only teams to even give the Blue Devils much of a game. Other than that, he said, “nobody’s even competed with them.”
“There’s a reason for that,” Turner said. “They do an outstanding job with the option game.”
Turner also said it will be a big challenge for his guys changing gears from facing speedy Clinch County to going against “tough, hard-nosed” Bremen. It’s amazing to Turner how well the Blue Devils have taken advantage of mistakes by opponents.
“They kind of suffocate you,” Turner said.
Senior center Cody Hall said the Blue Devils have taken it one game at a time all along, even though he’s heard other people talking about this game for weeks. Now that the big game against the No. 1 team is here, he’s confident the Blue Devils can win, saying they can’t be in awe of the Bulldogs.
“They are probably the top dogs, but, I mean, we’re better now than we’ve probably ever been,” Hall said. “And they’re just another team, really.”
Senior Luke Cummings, who has returned to action after breaking his ankle in the first game of the season, said the team has to play to its strengths to advance.
“We’re pretty confident. We’ve been a pretty strong team all year, and we’ve just got a lot of heart,” Cummings said. “So we’re in it to win it.”
Sticking to the basics and playing hard will make the difference, senior offensive lineman Tyler Smith said.
“It’s going to come down to our fundamentals beating their fundamentals. I mean, I think we probably focus on it more than what they do,” Smith said. “That’s what’ll win us the game, just hard-nosed fighting like we always do.”
And despite ECI’s bevy of Division I talent, coach Ricky Tolleson said his team has a great shot of winning this Friday.
“They’ve got Georgia commitments, Georgia Tech commitments, but I like the matchup,” Tolleson said. “I think us being at home is an advantage.”
Tolleson is referring to the Bulldogs’ star running back in Washaun Ealey, who is headed to the University of Georgia, along with teammate and linebacker Dexter Moody, while defensive tackle J.C. Lanier has committed to Georgia Tech.
Turner knows it will be a tough environment for his team, which has to make a four-hour drive for the game. He suggested the home-field advantage for Bremen should be enough to offset the Bulldogs’ playoff experience, but as defending state champions his guys have plenty of experience as the team that gets everyone’s best shot.
“We’re just going to have to stay poised and focused, not get rattled,” Turner said.
He said a fast start is extremely important, given the Blue Devils’ effective ball-control offense. Absent a good start, ECI could have a tough night, he said.
“You can get yourself in a hole that you almost can’t get out of,” Turner said.
Tolleson knows the Bulldogs, despite their big-play potential, can also chip away to beat teams.
“They’re a big-play team, but they have the potential to get in there toe-to-toe, shoe-to-shoe and just hammer you, too,” Tolleson said.
It will just be a matter of his team doing what it is supposed to do, according to Tolleson.
“The little things that we stress from Day 1 in summer practice, we’re still doing them, and if we do ’em right, we’ve got a chance to compete. If we do ’em wrong, it’ll be a long night,” Tolleson said. “I mean, they’re capable of scoring a lot of points on anybody. But I feel real good.”
Tolleson suggested, too, that effort may not be enough this week.
“Playing hard ... may not be good enough,” Tolleson said. “We’ve got to execute.”
Bremen will be without junior lineman Conner Mays, who broke his leg last Friday, and senior Curt Barrett is day-to-day with an injury. But Smith said the team isn’t going to let injuries become a distraction.
“We’re a little banged up, but I mean, we’ve always played together. And we’ve always pulled through, so I’m not really worried about us not making it happen,” Smith said. “I’m sure that we’ll do what we’ve always done and just pull together and fight like we always do.”