‘Player-Led’ Wildcats Embracing Massive Expectations [VIDEO]
If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. That’s the old saying, but Rabun County has taken it to heart, as coach Jaybo Shaw and the Wildcats put together quite the gauntlet of a non-region schedule in order to be more than prepared come time for the playoffs.
“Everybody wants to win every game,” says Shaw. “But it’s all about ‘are you playing your right football at the right time? Are you prepared…have you seen the things that you need to see to get addressed and get fixed before it’s too late?’ We’re going to play against some of the best coaching staffs, some of the best football teams. It’s my job to help prepare this football team to be ready to play when it matters the most.”
Rabun has been in this position before – that position being a top-ranked program in Class 2A that is favored by many to not only get to the state title game, but win it all.
“Everybody knows…we’re going for the state championship,” says senior 5-star UGA commit and QB Gunner Stockton. “Anything below that…it’s kind of bad.”
This particular season is one in which many, including the incredible senior class, has looked forward to for a long time.
“It’s big. Ever since we were young, in middle school and even earlier than that, it’s always been ‘man, I can’t wait til our senior year,'” adds Stockton. “It’s just crazy it’s here.”
In truth, this team has the makings of everything that a coach could want. Veteran team with a wealth of playoff experience – check. Talent – double check. Senior leadership – check. Great coaching – check. And a culture founded on driving toward a unified goal and not resting on past success – check. All that to say, everyone in and around this program knows this team can do it.
“We’ve been playing together since we were eight years old,” says senior lineman Will McCraw. “We know what each other is thinking. We’re not playing for ourselves, we’re playing for each other. Win a ring…that’s number one on our list. Any way we can do it, just win a ring.”
McCraw and the entire O-line and even defensive line are a huge reason for so much optimism. Fellow senior Bear Old, who is garnering a lot of D-I attention, knows that the trenches are where many games get decided in late November and early December.
“I think we’ve improved a lot,” says Old. “We really started clicking [last year]. When we get into our 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th game…we’re just one big movement, one big train coming through there.”
Bringing back some 19 starters from last season doesn’t hurt, and 21 seniors in total for Rabun County. That can’t be overstated.
“We talk about it often,” says Shaw. “I tell our team, ‘pressure is a privilege.’ We have high expectations, we have high goals and we’re going to do everything in our power to reach them. We’ve got such a senior-led football team…leading us in the way we need to be going.”
Adding to the list of things Rabun has working in its favor is the addition of 2 big-time weapons for the offense and Stockton – junior receiver Jaden Gibson and senior tight end Baxley O’Brien. Both transferred in; Gibson from Dawson County and O’Brien from Flowery Branch. Both were recently named All-State, along with Stockton and junior running back Lang Windham (All-State honorable mention). It has all the makings for a historic output for the offense.
“Those two players are really good high school football players that have had experience before and played a lot of football,” adds Shaw. “You throw that on top of guys who have been in our program for a long time now – Tate Ramey, Hogan Woodard, Ethan Clark, Hunter Moore, Cory Keller, Willie Goodwyn. That position is one of our strengths going into this year. It’ll be a lot of fun to watch.”
Gibson will play both ways, and is thrilled about the opportunity to be a part of this high-octane offense and be on the receiving end of throws by Stockton.
“Catching passes from Gunner Stockton is super special,” says Gibson. “It’s darts pretty much every time. Honestly, if you drop the ball, it’s your fault,” he adds jokingly.”
O’Brien knew the team was close, and jumped at the opportunity to join the family.
“I played against these guys growing up,” says O’Brien. “I knew they had been together for a long time. They already had a tight little family. Coming over, they just welcomed me right in. I’m happy to be their brother.”
As good as the offense has been (44-plus points per game last year), the defense is equally special (under 18 points per game allowed). Defensive guru Rob Stockton and the rest of the coaching staff has a talented group with players such as Will Turpin and Cory Keller (both All-State), Cesar Cruz, Chris Thompson, Moore, Knox McKinney, Turner Grimmett, Goodwyn, Nolan Crane, and the list goes on.
The Wildcats’ crazy-tough slate begins with a Week 1 matchup against #1-ranked Jefferson and 5-star UGA commit Malaki Starks. The schedule includes games against 7 playoff teams, 3 region champions, a state runner-up (Jefferson), and a state title winning team (Pierce County). No doubt the team will be battle-tested and ready to achieve their greatest goal.
“Everybody in our program knows what our expectations are…knows what our goals are,” says Shaw. “A player-led team is always better than a coach-led team. Those guys want to achieve it as much as anybody. They’re doing everything in their power to lead us the right way. I couldn’t handpick 21 better seniors.”
The goal is set and the expectation gigantic, and the team’s motto for 2021 needs no deliberation.
“Finish the Fight,” states Stockton. “It explains itself.”