In his two previous head coaching stints at Pebblebrook and Chamblee, Collins guided both teams into the state playoffs after a short period of time. He took over a Falcons team in 2005 and led them to two straight postseason appearances in ’06 and ’07.
When he left Pebblebrook to take over Chamblee, he maintained the Bulldogs’ success with back-to-back playoff showings in ’08 and ’09.
This season, Collins continued to work his brand of magic, turning around a Wheeler program that dropped 20 consecutive games over the 2008-09 campaigns and leading them into the playoffs in his third year at the helm.
“I’m really excited about this team and what they’ve accomplished,” Collins said. “Of all the programs I’ve taken to the playoffs, this is probably the most exciting one. Considering where they came from to getting the opportunity to play in the postseason, I’m just so proud of these kids and this coaching staff for what they’ve done.”
Wheeler’s reward for reaching the state playoffs for the first time since 2006 is a matchup against last year’s Class AAAAA champion, Grayson. The Region 8AAAAAA champion Rams (9-1), who are ranked 12th in the nation according to ESPN, host the Region 5AAAAAA No. 4 seed Wildcats tonight at Grayson Community Stadium.
“There are 32 teams in the playoffs and the ones that get in are all good,” Collins said. “Every round you’re going up against a great football team and playing Grayson is no different. We’re going to go out and control what we can control and see what happens.
“You can’t progress in the playoffs if you don’t get in, so it’s good to be in this position.”
Grayson will pose difficult problems for Wheeler on both sides of the ball. The Rams are capable of scoring in bunches, having averaged 40.8 points per game on the season. They’re just as tough defensively, holding opponents to 8.4 points per contest while posting four shutouts.
“Grayson has a very physical defensive line and they have athletes at every spot on the field,” Collins said.
“This is a situation where they’ll try to manhandle us on both sides and limit our possessions. We’ll play assignment football, go out and make plays and try not to turn the ball over.”
Wheeler’s road to the playoffs was rocky at best. The Wildcats started with a three-game win streak against non-region opponents, but faltered when it mattered most, losing their first two Region 5AAAAAA games. A win over Roswell was followed by back-to-back losses to the region’s two best teams — Lassiter and Walton — leaving Wheeler with a precarious
1-4 region mark and a slim shot at the postseason.
But fate intervened as Wheeler’s biggest postseason threat, Etowah, lost its final three games while the Wildcats won their last two and finished tied with Etowah for the No. 4 spot in the region.
Wheeler, who won the tiebreaker over Etowah and Woodstock to earn the No. 4 seed, held off a fourth-quarter rally from its finals regular season opponent — Cherokee — to make the playoffs.
“That win epitomized what this team has been through all season,” Collins said. “The game was at Cherokee and it was their senior night. It was a hostile environment and to watch those kids fight and gut out a win under those circumstances was special. It shows the type of kids these are to have to deal with that kind of adversity and get into the playoffs.”