The Indians are in the midst of their most successful season since the program went 14-1 and made the 1998 Class AAAA state championship game before falling to Valdosta.
After rebounding from losing two of its final three regular-season games, and winning three straight road games in the Class AAAAAA playoffs, McEachern (11-2) has a shot at clinching a spot in the Georgia Dome for next week’s state championship game.
First, though, the Indians must beat North Gwinnett on Friday, in their first home game since Oct. 11.
“I’m proud of this team, and this is a great opportunity for us,” said McEachern athletic director Jimmy Dorsey, who coached the Indians’ football team from 1984-2007. “We were able to overcome adversity, and looking back at these games, it came down to talented men making big plays.”
On that 1998 team, quarterback A.J. Suggs — who went on to play for Tennessee and Georgia Tech — was the one who made the lion’s share of big plays, leading the Indians to playoff wins over Northside Warner-Robins and Colquitt County to reach the finals. He finished with 2,094 yards and 23 touchdowns and was named the Class AAAA Player of the Year.
When McEachern advanced to the state quarterfinals the following year and finished with a 12-1 record, it appeared that the Indians would be state contenders in the years to come.
It didn’t work out that way.
Still, McEachern had success as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s.
The Indians went to the playoffs five of the next six years following the ’99 campaign, but they made it out of the first round only once in 2004. Around a rare losing season in ’07, McEachern continued to qualify for the postseason, but it didn’t quite have the firepower to make deep runs.
New schools opening and cutting into McEachern’s talent pool had much to do with that.
Kennesaw Mountain gained a few McEachern players when it opened in 2000, while Hillgrove gained even more in 2006 when it opened a few miles away. Even though Harrison opened six years before McEachern’s run to the state championship game, it also swiped a handful of players from the McEachern feeder program.
“We dealt with three different schools opening up, and when that happened, you lose a significant amount of kids,” Dorsey said. “When Harrison opened, we lost like 1,200 kids, and it takes you a while to replenish that. It has a much bigger impact on your school than you want to believe. It’s not an immediate change — the kids in (high) school will stay, but the middle-school kids don’t have a choice.”
Hillgrove’s opening had the biggest effect on McEachern. The Indians went 6-4 as the Hawks’ program launched in 2006, then went 4-6 in ’07 — Dorsey’s final season at the coaching reins. After improving to 8-8 in Kyle Hockman’s first season after his arrival from Campbell, McEachern appeared to have recovered from its losses in personnel.
The Indians had an unbeaten regular season in 2009 before falling to Brookwood in the opening round of the playoffs. Despite the disappointing ending, the program continued to find consistency, especially in the regular season. McEachern lost just one regular-season game in each of 2010 and ’11 seasons, and was undefeated in Region 4AAAAAA play last fall.
“I think it’s having a solid weight program and the continued work ethic of the kids,” Hockman said. “They are constantly working. They have feeder programs that are well-run. It’s a K-12 situation where we’re all working together to help these kids.”
Until this season, McEachern struggled to find success after the regular season ended.
Often drawing matchups with the powerhouse programs of south Georgia — like Valdosta in the second round of the 2010 tournament, and Colquitt County in the first round last year — made it difficult. The Indians also suffered heartbreaking losses to Brookwood in 2009 and Lassiter in ’11.
Finishing this regular season as the region’s No. 3 seed, may have actually helped McEachern.
Had the Indians won region, they would have likely run into Colquitt County, which instead routed region champion North Cobb in the second round. Had McEachern ended up as the No. 2 seed, it would have likely made a second-round road trip to Camden County.
Being the No. 3 seed seemed to work to the Indians’ benefit. They went on the road to beat Newton and Langston Hughes behind the work of freshman quarterback Bailey Hockman, who took over after Ty Clemons injured his ankle against Hillgrove on Nov. 8.
Though Clemons did return to action for McEachern’s quarterfinal-round game at Collins Hill, Hockman — the coach’s son — remained the starting QB and helped keep the Indians in position to win a down-to-the-wire game that was in doubt until Ty Griffin’s go-ahead punt return.