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Clarke looks to build on history

2014 Region 8-AAAAA Football Preview

POSTED: July 16, 2014 12:00 p.m.
Ivey Wynn/Barrow County News

Clarke Central’s Drico Browner looks to intercept Winder-Barrow rusher Joey Junius during the 2013 regular season game on Nov. 1.

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As one of the oldest and winningest programs in Georgia high school football, Clarke Central has quite the reputation to uphold. 

Between Clarke Central and the previously segregated Athens High School, an unbroken line of football runs all the way back to 1919. Before then, records hold that games were played as early as 1894. 

In that time, the combined records of Clarke Central and Athens High School claim a 721-307-26 tally. Since the integration of Clarke Central High School, the Gladiators are one of the few programs to boast a winning percentage higher than .700.

Altogether, the two schools claim seven state titles. Athens High School grabbed four with wins in 1921, 1941, 1955 and 1969, their final year in existence. Clarke Central would build on that success with three more championships in 1977, 1979 and 1985. 

Most recently, the Gladiators played for the Class-AAAA state championship in 2009 where they lost to Sandy Creek 29-15.

With such a stunning history, second-year head coach Ahren Self takes the responsibility of continuing that tradition of success quite seriously.

“It’s extremely important to keep that tradition going. There’s been a winning tradition here and every coach has had success. For the community, it’s my responsibility to make sure I can continue the success of Clarke Central High School,” Coach Self explained. “It means a lot to the community and to be a part of that tradition makes me proud and I want to make the community proud.”

Self’s program finished third in Region 8-AAAAA during his debut season with losses to Gainesville and Flowery Branch, along with non-region Marist to open the season. 

Clarke Central’s season perhaps perfectly highlighted the disparity in the region through 2013 as the Gladiators had an average scoring deficit 29 points against the top two teams in the region, but they enjoyed an average 22.17-point margin of victory in their six region wins, including a 23-3 blasting of fellow-playoff team Heritage in the middle of the season.

“It says a lot about the region. Each week, you’ve got to go out and play. It’s not an automatic win,” Self said. “That’s how we train, that’s how we play, and it’s unfortunate that the last couple years we haven’t done so well against Flowery Branch or Gainesville. Of course, they both have great programs and rich traditions themselves, so hats off to them, but that’s one of our goals this year is to beat one of those two schools or both of them.

“That’s what we strive for, along with making the playoffs and getting back to the Dome,” Self added.

Along with traditional success, the Gladiators share another element with the perennial powerhouses of Region 8-AAAAA: they have a lot of question marks on offense entering this season.

With key starters at receiver and quarterback graduating after last year’s playoff season, Clarke has to work extra hard to build the kind of success they expect.

Receivers Jaquan Dowdy and Jamonte Smith were both seniors in 2013, while quarterback and basketball star Cameron Johnson has also gone on to bigger and better things as a college hoops player at College of Charleston. 

“I think the young guys have got to step up. We have to have more of a total team effort, not just on offense, but on defense as well,” Self noted. “We’ve got some young guys now who are starting to step into those roles and mature a little bit, and I feel really good going into this season that those guys are going to come in and do a good job.”

Although the Gladiators will lose three crucial offensive players, the team will be entering their second year with Coach Self as head coach after his seven years as an assistant, and that familiarity should help fill in at least a few of the gaps left by the veterans leaving.

“I think we kind of kept the same familiarity when I took over,” Self acknowledged. “That’s one reason Coach Ward kept me on because I knew the guys. When you have that continuity and consistency, that’s an always an asset to the program and it helps a lot.”

The biggest advantage for Self’s offense is that running back JaQua Daniels is just a junior this upcoming season and potentially still has two great years for the Gladiators.

Daniels has already been offered a scholarship by his hometown college, a small school known for running back talent called the University of Georgia, after having an excellent sophomore season.

In a short time, the future star broke a school record with five touchdowns on 137 yards in a 43-19 win over Apalachee. The game before against Loganville, Daniels had only two touchdowns. But he did so with 192 yards and 36 carries.

“I expect him to be a little bit more durable and a little bit more mature in his preparation towards the game, and I think he’s shown that this summer and he’s doing a good job in the weight room and overall towards just becoming a better football player,” Self noted. “In football, you have to have balance. Whenever you have two fresh backs, that’s a plus. You’ve got a one-two punch. You can always keep a fresh guy in there. One guy is not going to carry the ball all the time.”

Daniels will be sharing the load with senior running back DeAnthony Vereen, who is no slouch at the position himself, but odds are good that the coach will find a way to get both young men ample playing time.

“I think it’s better when you can put either guy in there and they can carry the load, and I think they can,” Self added.

With his three senior leaders on offense gone, Daniels will need to carry a lot more of the load in 2014. Then again, if he lives up to the hype he is already building for himself on the field, then the Gladiators should still compete for a playoff berth in the vastly changing region landscape.

“I always try to preach to my guys that we’re going to look at it one game at a time,” Self said. “I think we work and prepare as hard as anybody in the state, and if we just take it one game at a time and we do what we’ve been doing and we play hard and we play consistent and we play mistake free, then I think we’re going to do just fine.”

Perhaps most notable as far as Clarke Central is concerned is the return of Scott Wilkins to rival Cedar Shoals. Wilkins built up a 106-50-1 record as the leader of Cedar Shoals football over 14 years, and he looks to bring revitalization to a troubled program on the other side of Athens.

Since Wilkins departed after the 2007 season, Cedar Shoals has gone 26-36. Most importantly, the Jaguars are 0-6 against their rival, which is their worst such stretch since going 0-13 from Sept. 1979 through Sept. 1988. They would finally break the streak with a 3-0 region playoff win in November of that same season.

Success against Cedar Shoals is nothing new for Clarke, though, as the Gladiators hold an impressive 32-15 advantage over their cross-town foes, but Wilkins built himself a winning record against the Gladiators and actually amassed more than half of Cedars’ wins over Clarke in his tenure. The Jaguars were 9-8 against Clarke in that 14 year span, including three region or state playoff games.

With the Clarke-killer returning to Cedar Shoals, the Gladiators may have reason to worry. Then again, according to Self, maybe not.

“There’s no doubt about it, when he was the head coach there, he’s done a great job. There’s no doubt in my mind that his coming back has invigorated the program and brought a little excitement to the community,” Self mentioned. 

“They’re tough every year when they play us. You never know. When you go against a coach that’s had that much success, and he’s a great coach, he’s definitely going to make a difference in Cedar Shoal’s program,” Self added.

It is worth mentioning that Wilkins came to Cedar Shoals in the final two years of legendary Billy Henderson’s coaching career with Clarke Central, so some of that success may be related to his minimal dealings with such a formidable opponent.

Whether or not Henderson’s aura is there to aid the Gladiators, Self believes that his team should be able to find the upper hand against Cedar Shoals for a while yet to come.

The 2014 Region 8-AAAAA schedule will be no easier than in years past with teams improving and once forlorn teams looking to start anew with fresh coaches, but the mainstay Gladiators believe that their place is still at the top of the dog pile that is Georgia high school football. After more than 100 years on the scene, Coach Self is far from ready to let the Gladiators slip into irrelevance on his watch. 

“We’ll do the best that we can do, but however the cards play out in the end is how we fall,” Self said. “I’m not scared of any one time. We’ll take it one game at a time, but if you’re worried about losing, there’s no reason to play the game at all.”

 

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