The stakes are getting higher and so is the level of competition for the Ridgeland Panthers.
Now 11-0 for the first time in school history, the Panthers will be back at home on Friday night to face perennial power Jefferson in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs. Kick-off is slated for 7:30 p.m.
Jefferson recorded its sixth consecutive opening round playoff win last week with a 29-13 home victory over White County, while Region 6 champion Ridgeland obliterated Chapel Hill, 63-7.
The Dragons know a thing or two about playoff football. They have eight region titles in their 70 years as a program, but five of those titles have come since 2008. They were the Class AA state champions in 2012, defeating Calhoun in the Georgia Dome, 31-14.
In the past 20 seasons, they have 18 total playoff appearances. Along with their state title, the Dragons have two more state quarterfinals appearances and they advanced to the Class AAAA state semifinals a year ago.
In the past 10 seasons, they have an overall record of 103-20, including a 9-2 mark this season under first-year head coach Gene Carthcart. They were 4-1 and finished as the No. 2 seed from Region 8.
Ridgeland head coach Wesley Tankersley said just the name Jefferson is worthy of respect.
"For me and about anyone else in the state, you compare them to folks like Marist, St. Pius, Cartersville and anyone else in our classification with that type of history and sustained success," he said. "They have a great football program. Their kids know how to win and how to win at a high level. They are going to come up here expecting to win, but so are we."
Many of Jefferson's wins in the past four seasons have been on the legs of senior running back Colby Wood. Wood, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior with offers from Navy and Mercer, but interest from the likes of Auburn, Tennessee and Pitt, has 6,218 career rushing yards and 88 career touchdowns, including a 2,000-yard season as a sophomore. He had 148 yards and three scores - one receiving - in last week's win.
His 199 carries, 1,354 yards and 18 TD's are a little off his pace of the the past two campaigns, but that is mostly due to the balance the Dragons have on offense this season.
Senior quarterback Bryce Moore (6-3, 185) has completed 111-of-185 pass attempts this year for 1,665 yards and 15 scores against just four interceptions. He was an efficient 7-of-9 for 118 yards and a TD last week. Moore also has 29 carries for 166 yards and two additions scores.
Joining Wood in the backfield are senior Justiin Cole and sophomore Donsha Gaither, who have teamed for over 700 yards and nine touchdowns and Moore likes to spread it around when the Dragons go to the air.
In addition to Wood's five TD catches, junior Zac Corbin has seven, while three others have two each. Corbin and junior Sammy Elegrett are the team leaders in receiving yards and the Dragons can pose a match-up problem with 6-foot-6, 220-pound junior tight end Garmon Randolph, who had nine catches for 125 yards and two scores.
Up front, a good-sized and physical offensive line is led by seniors Hunter Griffith (6-2, 265) and Logan Garner (6-1, 240), along with juniors Ryan Godfrey (5-11, 210) and J.T. Middleton (6-3, 300). A few of the offensive linemen also lead the charge in Jefferson's defensive front.
Senior end Noah Mulvey (6-2, 205) is one of the team leaders in sacks and tackles for loss, along with senior outside linebacker Cale Compton and junior end Aaron Hall (6-2, 270). Sophomore Colby Clark and senior Matthew Nilsen are two of the Dragons' top tacklers at linebacker.
And in the secondary, Wood and senior Addison Clay lead a ball-hawking unit that have 12 interceptions this season. Corbin and senior Terrell Wall lead the way with three each. Wood has two picks this season, giving him double digits for his career. Junior Hayden Kilgore handles the kicking chores.
Jefferson is averaging 34.6 points a game on offense and allowing 15.1 a game on defense. Their only losses of the season have come against then-No. 2 Thomson (20-14) and Region 8 champion St. Pius X (43-29). Ridgeland will be the second state-ranked team the Dragons have faced this year.
"They have a good quarterback, good receivers and a good fullback to go with (Wood)," Tankersley added. "They have quite a few weapons on offense, so we'll have to play really well on defense they way we have all year. From a balance standpoint, they'll be the best offense we've faced all season."
Meanwhile, the Panthers are second in Class AAAA in scoring offense (48.5), first in scoring defense (7.6). Jefferson will be the third state-ranked team they have faced in 2017, along with Pepperell (Class AA) and Darlington (Class A Private).
Senior Markeith Montgomery leads the Panthers with 1,120 yards and 18 touchdowns on just 84 carries for a 13.3 yards-per-carry average. Senior Jalyn Shelton, who missed last week's game with an ankle injury, but is expected to be available on Friday, has 1,063 yards and 18 TD's on 162 carries. A total of 13 other backs have accounted for 1,219 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns this season.
Junior quarterback Tanner Hill is 48-of-90 for 967 yards and nine touchdowns with the bulk of the throws going to junior Stephon Walker (27 rec., 638 yards, 9 TD). Sophomore Torrance Roberts has 11 catches for 184 yards and Montgomery has six grabs for 144 yards. Both have one touchdown each.
Sophomore kicker Conner Middleton is 70-of-75 on extra points and 2-for-3 on field goals this season with a long of 36 yards.
The defense continues to play at a high level. They have three shutouts and have allowed seven points or less eight times, including last week's win against Chapel Hill. The visiting Panthers from Douglasville, who entered the game having averaged 23 points a game this season, managed just 41 yards of total offense and minus-28 on the ground. Their lone score came at the end of the third quarter on a long, jump-ball pass after Ridgeland had built a 56-0 lead.
Ridgeland has trailed in a game only once this season. That was against Northwest Whitfield, who scored on the game's opening possession before giving up 48 unanswered points the rest of the way. The Panthers have punted just 16 times in 11 games this season.
"This is the biggest game at Ridgeland since the Marist (state semifinal) game in 2012," Tankersley said. "It's a huge opportunity for us. We've had a really good week of practice so far and I feel like the kids have done really well with it and staying focused."
The winner of this Friday's game will face the winner of the game between Baldwin (7-4) and Mary Persons (9-2). Ridgeland would host Baldwin, a No. 3 seed, while a win by No. 1 seed Mary Persons win would mean a coin flip would determine home field for the state quarterfinals.
Information from Georgia High School Football Daily and the Georgia High School Football Historians Association (ghsfha.org) was used in this story.