Every step the Pepperell Dragons have taken this season has allowed them to discover who they are through triumph and challenge.
When they make the 300-mile trek to Thomasville on Friday night, the Dragons will be taking the sum of their experiences with them to try and break through to the state quarterfinals.
Pepperell (9-2) is coming into the second round of the state playoffs on a four-game winning streak that has seen the Dragons outscore opponents 161-19, including topping defending Class AA state champion Heard County 27-7 in the opening round.
“Our offense has been consistent this year. I was looking at our stats and we’re about 1,800 yards rushing and about 1,600 yards passing. When you have that balance, that makes it tough defensively to play against us,” Pepperell head coach Rick Hurst said.
“Our defense has done a really good job all year. I don’t think people realize how well they’ve played. One thing this group has done really well this year is tackle well in space. We haven’t let guys get outside of us, and when they have, we’ve been able to run them down.”
The Dragon will take on a No. 6-ranked Thomasville team Friday night that won the five-team Region 1-AA crown this season and trailed 20-17 in the third quarter last week before getting a 31-26 win over Dodge County. Ricardo Johnson had 119 yards and three touchdowns on four receptions.
Hurst said the Bulldogs (7-4) look very familiar with parts that remind him of fellow Region 7-AA team Rockmart as well as his own Pepperell team, such as their multifaceted offense.
“They do a very good job of spreading the field and finding spots where you’re not at,” Hurst said. “They scheme you very well. We’ve got a few wrinkles ourselves for them. I think if we’re disciplined and read our keys and play like we’re capable of, then I feel confident about the outcome.”
Pepperell’s two losses came against Darlington and Rockmart, two top-10 teams in the playoffs as well. The Dragons lost to Darlington 17-7 in the opening week of the season and then defeated Pickens and Heritage-Ringgold, two Class 4A teams that made the playoffs.
Then came Rockmart, which Pepperell lost to 34-17 on Oct. 18 after going into the fourth quarter with the game tied 10-10. Hurst said he believes the Jackets to be one of the top teams in the state and they learned a lot going against them.
“Thomasville reminds me a lot of them, so we’re going to have to play well,” Hurst said. “But they’re not any better than Rockmart, and that’s what I’ve told our kids. They’ve faced an opponent they feel like they can play with. But let’s make a few less mistakes and we can have a chance.”
A part of Pepperell’s offense that has evolved during the season has been its offense, with running backs DJ Rogers and Tra Robinson complementing the passing game. And with junior Gage Moses and sophomore Shannen White both proving their mettle behind center, the Dragons have been able to put in another wrinkle.
“I’m not a big two-platoon coach. I don’t like that,” Hurst said. “But both of these quarterbacks do different things well. They both throw the ball well. They both run well. It’s hard to say who’s the better runner and who’s the better thrower. It’s just day to day.”