The Best High School Team in the Country?
By BJ Bennett
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Nine games through their step onto the big stage, Camden County has been beyond good. They've been perfect.
Nestled in the picturesque far southeast corner of the state of Georgia, Camden County is home to Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Cumberald Island National Seashore and now, most notably, arguably the best high school football team in the country. The 9-0, top-ranked Wildcats have been a powder blue splotch atop the Peach State polls for years. This season, however, they've officially broadened their stroke.
Camden County entered 2012 having not lost a region football game in over a decade. While the Wildcats more than made up for their former region's lack of depth with a consistently-trying non-region schedule (see participation in the Kirk Heirbstreit Classic, games against Hoover, Miami Central, St. Thomas Aquinas), some pointed towards their old alignment as part of the reason for their relentless dominance. The question long asked was a simple one: could the 'Cats maintain the status quo with a dramatic change of scenery?
Preseason discussions this summer focused on the Wildcats' highly-anticipated move to Region 1-AAAAAA, a grouping of south Georgia powers considered by many to be the toughest in high school football. Camden County's new neighbors included Coffee County, Colquitt County, Lowndes and Valdosta, the latter two schools coming from ESPN's "Titletown". Joining Jeff Herron amongst the region coaching ranks, known commodities Rance Gillespie, Randy McPherson, Rush Propst and Robby Pruitt. Of the seven colorful coaches in the region, six of them have won at least two state championships. The other made title game appearances with two different teams and lost by a total of three points.
Nine games through their step onto the big stage, playing in what's been called the "SEC of High School Football", Camden County has been beyond good. They've been perfect. More so, their results this fall have not been much different than in season's past. The Wildcats are winning games by an average score of 43-5, with their offensive and defensive totals and margin the victory being the most in the state's largest classification. No prep team in the state of Georgia is allowing fewer points per game.
Camden County has handled each challenge this season in stride, though the consecutive victories haven't come without adversity.
"It is a very stressful thing from a coaching standpoint and it puts a lot of stress on our kids too, physically and mentally. I think the worst part of all of this is that we're all kind of limping into the playoffs," explained head football coach Jeff Herron to Kevin Thomas on "The Afternoon Blitz" on The Fan Sports Radio 103.7, ESPN Radio Southeast Georgia. "You can't play this type of schedule and not get some kids banged up and hurt, just physically and mentally worn down. That includes coaches, too."
The Wildcats faced their most formidable foe to date last Friday night in a nationally-televised game on ESPNU against undefeated region-rival Lowndes. Facing the famed Vikings in Martin Stadium in Valdosta, Herron's squad emerged with an impressive 24-7 victory.
"It was a great atmosphere, probably the loudest stadium I have ever been in. An unbelievable band, their band is something else. It really is a hard place to play, communication is extremely difficult, but what a good setting for a high school kid to get to play in," he continued.
With four different players ranked in the national top 55 at their position per Rivals.com, commentators used the broadcast to discuss, among other topics, Camden's prominent recruits. Quarterback Brice Ramsey and athlete J.J. Green are both currently committed to Georgia, linebacker Jarrad Davis has pledged to Auburn and offensive lineman J.P. Vonashek has verballed to South Carolina. Though televised games are nothing new for the Wildcats, Herron feels like all of the attention may have disrupted his team's focus.
"I can honestly say I don't think we played our best. I thought it was one of our worst performances in terms of mistakes, but Lowndes had a lot to do with that. They came out and had a very good gameplan and really took it to us right off the bat. I think our kids might have been caught up in all of the hype and TV and all of that mess," the veteran head coach acknowledged. "We stumbled out of the gate a little bit, but I was proud of them and I think we got momentum back really quick and kind of got control. Lowndes had a very good plan and they executed it really well. It was an extremely tough game."
With the win, Camden County secured a region championship in their very first season in Georgia's 1-AAAAAA. It's a feat that, for now, has silenced some of the critics. The Wildcats have moved up to fifth in the USA Today high school rankings. While it's extremely difficult to contrast teams from across the country, this resume is one that must be under serious consideration.
"We're certainly pleased that we were able to win it in our first year in there. We heard a lot of the stuff about coming from the weak region and all of that so it did make it kind of special. We've still got a lot of work ahead of us," Herron admitted. "One of our goals was to win the region but that wasn't our ultimate goal. We need to take care of business the last week and head into the playoffs and try to keep this going."
Next up for the 'Cats, a chance to rewrite some wrongs against their lone nemesis from a year ago: Colquitt County. Camden has won 21 of their last 22 games, their one loss coming in the playoffs last season at the hands of the Packers. This Friday night the Wildcats make a return trip to Moultrie. While the region crown has already been clinched, Colquitt County will serve as a strong litmus test in the regular season finale. The 6-3 Packers have lost their trio of games by a grand total of seven points.
"It certainly is a big challenge. They've got a good team, they beat us last year and knocked us out of the playoffs. We had a very long trip this week, we got back really late Saturday morning. It's a short turnaround, we don't have anyway out of it. I guess we could just forfeit and rest up for the playoffs now but that probably wouldn't be the best thing to do. We'll hopefully get through this week, put Friday night behind us and be ready to go next Friday," Herron stated.
For a program with a recent-tradition as proud as any in the country, mission one has been accomplished. The next big goal remains winning their fourth state championship in a decade. Here, the mettle of Herron's team will truly be tested.
"We've all joked about preparing for the 'SEC' and all that but the difference is that after that SEC Championship, they get a month off to go play one bowl game. We don't get any days off," he detailed in reference to the start of the postseason. "We just have to tee it up the next week and have five straight playoff games to achieve our ultimate goal. That's going to be tough. I really think everyone in region one is going to struggle with that. Hopefully we will be good enough to overcome it, but it's not going to be an easy task for any of us."
Camden County football has become a recognizable name nationally. At a program long known for producing former NFL running back Stump Mitchell, Herron has built a paint-by-number perennial power where sheer supremacy is the annual expectation. The final leg of another run towards that will soon begin. For a coach who has seen a lot of greatness in his career, he still has more questions than answers for a team that has not been played within two scores this season.
"I think as a coach, sometimes, it's hard to compare," Herron added of how his current team stacks up to his others. "We really have never looked at it like that, we just worry about what this team is capable of doing. They've proven themselves through the region and regular season schedule more than any of our teams have probably ever had to do before. Does that make us better? I don't know. We won't know that for five more weeks. We'll see where we're at then."
With perhaps his most talented team ever, Camden County's Herron appears to be coating one more masterpiece. This canvas, through his eyes, remains a very real work in progress. An abstract look offers some uncertainty as the Wildcats move towards the playoffs. A retrospective one, though, hints that this could be yet another work of art in the making.
Techfit picture: CounterKicks.com
Herron picture: MaxPreps.com