VALDOSTA -- Stephenson head coach Ron Gartrell never panicked.
Gartrell and his 0-3 Jaguars were in a hole deeper than they'd been in several years. Eight games later Stephenson finds itself in a familiar position, fighting for a quarterfinal berth in the state playoffs.
"We knew all along we had a good football team," Gartrell says of his 7-4 Jaguars, the No. 2 seed from Region 2-AAAAA. "It may be because of added leadership or chemistry or a little of both. We made some mistakes and if not for those we could easily have won some of those early games."
To be able to make their fourth consecutive quarterfinal appearance, the Jaguars will have to slow down a Lowndes High team that nobody has been able to put the brakes on yet.
The Vikings (11-0) host Stephenson today at 8 p.m. in the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.
Gartrell is concerned and excited at the same time about the opportunity his Jaguars get today.
"We're a little nervous," Gartrell said. "We haven't seen a team like this in a while. Maybe we'll enjoy the ride down even if we don't enjoy the game."
Stephenson will bring a defense to Martin Stadium that is one of the few in the state that can rival the Vikings and that's something Lowndes head coach Randy McPherson is looking forward to.
"We always look for a good challenge," McPherson said. "That's what competition is all about. We're certainly going to have that Friday night. They're a contender."
Stephenson's slow start can be blamed on its difficult non-region schedule, but what the Jaguars had to overcome in the offseason outweighs even the state's toughest schedule.
Senior leader and starting quarterback Chris McClendon was paralyzed from his chest down during a car accident prior to the season. For the first few games, Stephenson had no viable experience at quarterback and Gartrell says the Jaguars went into a 'daze for a while.'
"It affected us a little," Gartrell said of losing McClendon. "You lose a kid like that, someone who is so important to you, it's hard to put it behind you. He was a team leader, one of those kids you don't replace."
Gartrell says doctors believed McClendon would never walk again, but in Stephenson's 21-0 regular season finale win over Riverdale, McClendon, with some assistance, stood and took a few steps in front of his team.
Lowndes hasn't had any kind of emotional lift such of Stephenson's, but the Vikings haven't needed it. McPherson's Wing-T offense averages nearly 20 more points per game than the Jaguars, whose defense has had difficulty stopping Wing-T offenses.
"We have had some difficulty with Wing-T teams in past," Gartrell said. "Our key is to try to not let them run up and down the field.
"But we're not afraid and we're not intimidated. We've been in this type of situation before."
Stephenson quarterback Michael Harper has filled in for McClendon in the Jaguars' run-oriented offense. Running back Andre Anderson, who ran for 285 yards in the regular season finale, is an offensive weapon, but the defense is where the Jaguars' athletes are.
Cornerback Alex Washington and linebacker Marcus Ball (kin to former Jaguar and current Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball) lead Stephenson's defense, which hasn't allowed more than 14 points to an opponent this season.
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