Good and bad, it was a season to remember for the Briarwood Buccaneers.
Things didn't start well when Will Holley lost his life last summer in a four-wheeler accident.
Scott Wills levels a Brentwood player during their game on Oct. 31. Wills was one of the Bucs' leading players.
Things continued to go downhill when playmaker Brandon Norman was told by doctors that he had a tumor and would be out for the year.
And things got really bad when the Bucs opened the season with six injuries, including Quarterback Bob Wills.
Briarwood could have folded, packed it in and just showed up. But they didn't.
After Wills got back, the offense gelled, and the defense turned out to be one of the most feared units in the GISA.
His team's Region 1-AA regular season championship more than exceeded the expectations of Head Coach Jimmy Barnett, especially after the adversity the team faced early in the year. He said it was once the team stopped thinking about going all the way and started going game-by-game that things really started to come together.
"We achieved every goal I wanted. All of a sudden, you've got Justin Callaway gone, Will Holley gone, and Brandon Norman gone, and the kids were looking around, wondering," he said. "I told them to forget about a state championship and start learning the plays. ...And to be honest, I saw a sign of relief in those kids' eyes."
The defense gave up an average of only 14.8 points per game, including playoffs, while the offense racked up 24.5 points per contest. If the Bucs' opening game debacle against Augusta Christian is taken out of the equation, where they lost 48-0, the points allowed average dips down to an even 12.0 per game. While the defense was probably the main reason for Briarwood's eight game winning streak to finish out of the season, Coach Barnett also attributed his team's tough schedule to the consistent play of his squad.
"I think the competition, once we got some confidence in our kids and started winning, was very important. I think that competition was good for us every week. We didn't have a chance to breathe, and we didn't have a chance to look back. Some teams can handle that, and some teams can't. This one could," he said.
When Norman went down for the season, it left big shoes to fill on both sides of the ball. Norman was the team's starting running back and safety. But instead of trying to make other players make up for the loss of Norman, Coach Barnett altered his schemes on both sides of the ball. He moved Fullback Jeff Kent to running back, and Tyler Wester was moved from the guard position to fullback.
"We came up with some things that took advantage of kids' talents," said Coach Barnett.
Instead of burning up the corners with Norman and Wills, Coach Barnett had Wester, Kent, and Burt Goolsby running more inside, power-oriented run plays throughout the season. Briarwood found frequent success with the power game, which usually resulted in big gains when the Bucs would run to the outside or shoot a pass deep.
Coach Barnett said it was an easy decision to tailor-make his schemes to fit his talent.
"I love Christmas, and I always take what Santa Claus brings me," he said. "I might have asked for Corvette and gotten a Chevy, but I'm going to take it. That's one of my strengths as a coach is to take what I get and use it. Every kid has got some kind of talent. I don't care how big he is or strong he is or fast he is; he's got something that he does well. And if you can find it and use it, you'll get a long way in this game, and that's what I did."
Coach Barnett said the 2003 campaign was special for a number of reasons, but he thought that his team came together in a way he couldn't have predicted.
His players weren't just teammates to each other; they were friends. And he's just happy he was along for the ride.
"I don't think they'll ever forget what happened this year, and that feeling that they had," he said. "It'll just ignite them again. There's a lot of love there, and I personally as a coach will never forget this year. Some you forget and go on with your life. I won't ever forget this crowd."