After having success at Pebblebrook, taking the Falcons to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, Collins thought he was moving to greener pastures when he went to be the coach at Chamblee.
But a funny thing happened on Collins’ trip to paradise — he couldn’t sell his house. And soon, the 40-mile commute to work in rush-hour traffic made the green pasture go dormant. So, despite moving up a classification and still getting Chamblee to the playoffs for two straight seasons, Collins decided to look for a job closer to home.
About that time, the Wheeler job came open. It was a chance to come back to Cobb County, but he would have to try and turn around a program that had gone 0-20 over the 2008 and ’09 seasons.
Actually, the record may have been misleading. The program may have been in even worse shape than 0-20 might indicate.
“I knew it was going to be difficult,” Collins said. “But it was more difficult than I thought.”
One of the big reasons is much of the talent that would have been coming up through the Wheeler youth program had found their way to different programs in and around Cobb County. So, before Collins could become a coach with the Wildcats, he had to become a salesman. He had to sell the players on his vision and what he was all about.
“I had individual meetings with players,” Collins said. “I told them, sometimes the easiest way out is going to a program that is already successful. But it is special when you stick out (the hard times) and learn from it. It’s those guys who become the folk heroes, the ones that build the new foundation of success.”
It looks like the players have bought into Collins’ plan. After a 1-9 year in 2010, Wheeler went
4-6 last year and now 6-4 this season, and people around the Wildcats’ program are beginning to learn who some of those folk heroes are going to be — players like quarterback Elijah Staley, wide receiver Emmanuel Beal, safety Allen Artis.
All three players are juniors and have become the leaders on a team that may have arrived a year earlier than expected.
Their gift is a trip to Grayson tonight to face last year’s Class AAAAA state champion with its high school all-American, blue-chip defensive end Robert Nkemdiche. It’s a game Wheeler is not supposed to win, but this season, the Wildcats are playing with house money.
Wheeler can look at this game as a learning experience and something that can help drive them forward heading into the 2013 season. And who knows, if the Rams take the Wildcats lightly, maybe Wheeler can shock one of the powers in Georgia high school football.
But regardless of the outcome, it’s nice to have the real Wheeler football program back.
Wheeler will be joined in the playoffs by 10 other Cobb teams that are all trying to become the first county program since 1967 to win a state championship. The Wildcats join Lassiter and Walton out of Region 5AAAAAA, McEachern, North Cobb, Marietta and Hillgrove in Region 4AAAAAA, Kell, Pope and Allatoona from Class AAAAA and Walker in Class A.
The Wolverines are the only team guaranteed to be playing next week, as they have a bye in the Class A playoffs, but who will join them? And will we have a state championship to celebrate when the football season comes to a close next month? Well, let’s map it out.
Round 1 — If Cobb County could have picked the hardest route possible through the playoffs, it may have looked like this year’s draw. In Class AAAAAA, the teams match up against arguably the two best regions in the state this season – Region 1AAAAAA and Region 8AAAAAA, and McEachern, North Cobb, Marietta and Hillgrove really get the short stick.
McEachern has won eight games in a row and is the No. 1 seed out of 4AAAAAA, but the Indians didn’t draw a usual No. 4 seed. Instead, they get the No. 10 team in the state and one that upset No. 1 Camden County last week. Pair the Packers momentum with the fact that McEachern’s defense will give up 20 or 30 points in a game and it doesn’t look good for the Indians
North Cobb is on a 12-game playoff game losing streak and maybe a little too young in some key positions to handle a Valdosta team that is built for the playoffs and is a program that has won 23 state titles.
Marietta will travel four more than four hours to face a Lowndes program that has had two weeks to stew about a 24-7 loss to Camden County to close its regular season. If the Blue Devils have the ability to play a perfect game, they will need to do it and get a couple breaks to make the long trip home enjoyable.
And Hillgrove, will all the great things it did to turn its season around and get back into the playoff hunt their reward is a 5 hour trip to Camden County. The last time the Hawks traveled to Kingsland they pulled a huge 28-26 upset.
The Wildcats aren’t likely to have forgotten that night, and this game follows Camden County’s only loss of the season, so it’s probably not going to be in a good mood.
As good at the Walton program has been over the years, that’s how beat up the Raiders are heading into tonight’s game against Parkview tonight. Walton has the heart, but it just doesn’t look like they will have the bodies to hold up against the Panthers.
That leaves Lassiter. The Trojans come in 10-0 and as the new No. 1 team in the state. They are relatively healthy and Eddie Printz may be the best player state right now. Brookwood won the state championship in 2010 and are a team that is built for the playoffs, but Lassiter beat them in the season opener in 2011, and after winning three road playoff games a year ago, the Trojans are the better team. They are the only Class AAAAAA team that will move on to Round 2.
In Class AAAAA, Kell hosts Southwest DeKalb in what would normally be a game that could go down as a classic. But this isn’t the same kind of Southwest team it has been in the past and got into the postseason as a No. 4 seed after going 6-4. The Longhorns only loss is to Lassiter, they are on a seven game winning streak and they are averaging 38 points a game during that stretch. Expect that to continue as they move on to Round 2.
Allatoona will come back from its first loss and handle a Heritage-Conyers team that has qualified for the playoffs for the third straight season for the first time in its history. The Buccaneers running game will be too much for the Patriots to handle, and the Allatoona defense will be refocused after getting worked over by East Paulding. The Bucs move on.
Pope will travel to Stephenson on Saturday for its playoff game where it will find a Jaguars squad waiting to pounce. In its home games this season, the only team to score more than 17 points is 10-0 M.L. King, while the Stephenson offense has rolled up 33 points a game for the season. The Greyhounds overachieved this season getting to seven wins, and their offense is not built to win a high-scoring affair against an elite program.
Round 2 – Lassiter, Kell, Allatoona and Walker make it to the second round and again face fairly favorable matchups.
Lassiter will likely host Alpharetta in a rematch of last year’s playoff opener. The Raiders average 35 points a game on offense, but allow 25 on defense. The Trojans offense is better than Alpharetta, and Lassiter’s defense will not give up 25 or 30 points to the Raiders.
Kell will host Gainesville, a team with a dangerous offense, which averages 42 points a game, but a team that seems to find a way to get beat against teams that don’t back down from them. This will be a test for the Longhorns defense, but at home Kell will find a way.
Allatoona will likely have to travel to M.L. King. The Buccaneers proved they can play with the big boys in Class AAAAA this season, but this Allatoona team isn’t ready to make the big run deep into the playoffs yet.
After a bye week, Walker gets into the action against a 4-6 Athens Christian team. Too much Evan Kasian and the Wolverines move on.
Round 3 – Lassiter, Kell and Walker make the state quarterfinals.
Lassiter will again be at home taking on Valdosta. After beating North Cobb in the first round, the Wildcats will crush Langston Hughes in Round 2, but this is where their playoff run will end. For the third week in a row, Valdosta will have to take a 4 hour bus ride to the Atlanta area. The travel, as well as the Lassiter offense, will take its toll.
Kell will host Warner Robins. The Longhorns have started slowly in some games, and this is the one where it comes back to bite them. The Demons may be the second best team in Class AAAAA behind city mate Northside.
Walker will likely host Aquinas, but this is as far as the Wolverines go. Walker has had a great season, but Aquinas is the better team. Its only losses on the year come at the hands of Lincoln County and Wilkinson County. Walker just hasn’t played the same level of competition.
Round 4 – Lassiter in the state semifinals.
Lassiter will face the winner of the Lowndes-Grayson matchup in the semifinals. Lowndes would be at “The Frank” while a matchup with Grayson would be decided by coin flip. It doesn’t matter, either way, the Trojans season comes to a close at 13-1.
Lassiter has had a great season, but the three best teams the Trojans have faced this year have been Kell, Walton and Milton. While the Trojans beat the Longhorns handily, they struggled to put away a beat up Raiders squad, and got behind the Eagles by 20 points before finding their offense for a comeback victory. This is something that will finally catch up to them.
Unfortunately, even though it means Cobb County had another great year of high school football, it will be at least 46 years between state championships. Guess we’ll get them next year.