Tonight, Hillgrove (6-4) returns to the scene of possibly its greatest postseason victory when the Region 4AAAAAA No. 4-seeded Hawks visit Region 1AAAAAA champion Camden County in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs at Chris Gilman Stadium.
The Wildcats had been ranked No. 1 in the state since mid-September, but fell to No. 5 following a 13-12 loss to region foe Colquitt County — which snapped a nine-game winning streak — in the regular-season finale for both teams.
That loss should certainly add fuel to the fire under the Camden County coaching staff, players and fans who remember the setback Hillgrove delivered the team back in 2010.
“I would think that (game would linger more in the minds of) the coaches than anybody else,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said. “I think they’ll take away a level of preparedness from that game and have the team more focused on what they need to do.
“That’s just how coaches are when it comes to losses. We think we didn’t prepare the team well enough. I think they’ll have their kids pay more attention to detail and come out ready to play. I would expect nothing less.”
Hillgrove’s trip to the postseason began on shaky ground after starting the year at 1-2 overall before moving to 3-3 and 2-2 in region play. Since then, the Hawks have won three of their last four games and concluded the regular season with a narrow 33-30 loss to rival McEachern.
After having to face the McEachern running game, things don’t get any easier this week. The Hawks will have to slow down a Camden County offense that averages 40 points a game behind Georgia-bound quarterback Brice Ramsey, who has thrown for 1,142 yards and 18 touchdowns against a single interception, and a stable of running backs that have rushed for a combined total of 2,740 yards.
One important thing about the trip to Kingsland is the fact that Hillgrove has made this journey before. The victory there in 2010 gave the Hawks’ players and coaches a better understanding of what to expect.
“These are two totally different teams, comparing the 2010 group to this one,” Ironside said. “A lot has changed personnel wise for both teams, but from our standpoint as coaches, it’s shown us how to prepare and what to do to get ready. We understand what will work and what won’t work, and that’s helpful.”
Hillgrove will need all of the experience it can muster if it hopes to topple Camden County again. The Wildcats are a No. 1 seed for the 12th straight season, and they have won 10 straight opening-round games.
Fortunately, the Hawks appear to be playing their best football in a while and injured players are back healthy and ready to contribute.
“We’ve gotten better as we’ve gotten some of our injured players back,” Ironside said. “(Running back) Richardre Bagley is healthy, which should improve our running back and gives us an extra skill guy out there.
“(Quarterback) Troy Thompson has settled in to his role and is playing well. Our defense is playing better, and we’re healthier than we’ve ever been.”
Hillgrove will likely need as many healthy bodies as they can muster against a Camden County team that likes to run the ball. Although, quarterback Brice Ramsey is committed to Georgia, the Wildcats don’t throw the ball a lot, but the threat of having Ramsey in the backfield makes Camden County even more dangerous.
“They like to run the football and they play great defense,” said Ironside about his opponent. “They have a good kicking game and a quarterback who can throw the ball even though they just don’t do it. It’s a conservative offense that will try to drive you into the ground every quarter and every play.”