One-loss Jefferson travels to Rabun County with bulls-eye on its back

When Jefferson and Rabun County square off tonight at Frank Snyder Stadium in Tiger, the game will represent a meeting by the last teams that are undefeated in Region 8-AA.

And both the Dragons (4-1, 2-0) and Wildcats (4-1, 2-0) are coming into battle with considerable momentum behind them.

After dropping its season opener to Commerce, Jefferson — ranked No. 9 in Class AA — has recorded four victories, including last Friday’s 31-0 thrashing of then-No. 6 Washington-Wilkes. In their four wins, the Dragons have outscored their opponents 148-53.

Under new coach Lee Shaw — who returns to his alma mater after a successful 10-season stint at Flowery Branch — Rabun County kicked off the 2012 campaign with two impressive wins, but then Commerce posted a stunning last-minute victory on Sept. 21 to slow down the train, albeit momentarily, as the Wildcats returned to claim lopsided region victories over Social Circle and Riverside Military.

Rabun County hasn’t experienced a winning season since 2000, but under Shaw’s watchful eye, the Wildcats are rapidly working their way into contender status.

“The transition has been really good — the kids have bought in, the community’s bought in,” said Shaw, the father of South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. “There’s always been a tradition of pride up here. We just had to uncover it again and build on what we’ve done in the past. We’re 4-1 and 2-0 in the region, so we know we’ve got a little momentum — we’re not close to where we want to be, but we’re better than we used to be. We’re taking great strides right now.”

Behind the passing and running of Bryant Shirreffs and the defensive prowess of linebackers Wesley Simonton and Kody McDonald, Jefferson is making strides with every game, said veteran coach T. McFerrin.

“I think we’re getting better and I surely hope we continue because we don’t want a drop-off or a letdown this week,” McFerrin said. “We’ve certainly improved since the first game through the fifth game, and that’s what you want — to get a little bit better every week. Some of our young guys have never played before have grown up just from the experience of five games. We’ve had a pretty tough schedule these first five games and I think that’s helped us. We’re not the same team that we were the first game of the season.”

Tonight’s game will showcase a pair of Northeast Georgia’s best quarterbacks. Shirreffs, a Banner-Herald First-Team All-Area selection in 2011 and a member of the “Terrific Ten” this year, has completed 66 passes for 823 yards and four touchdowns, and he’s rushed 61 times for 336 yards and seven touchdowns. Rabun County’s Wes Holcombe is equally dangerous on land or in the air, rushing for 349 yards and five touchdowns and completing 54 of 90 passes for eight touchdowns.

“They’ve done a really good job and they’ve got a really good offensive team,” McFerrin said. “We’re concerned about them because they’ve got a really good quarterback who can run and pass. They run the zone-read, and the quarterback can throw the ball or he can run it on the zone-keep option play.”

“(Shirreffs is) the trigger guy — he starts it off,” Shaw said. “But Jefferson is not one-dimensional. They’ve got weapons at every location on the field. They can spread you out and throw it, and they throw screens well. They’ve got running backs who can take it to the house and they’ve got a quarterback who’s a dual-threat kid that is as talented as anybody we’ll play against.”

Jefferson — which is 16-3 all-time against Rabun County and, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians, hasn’t lost to the Wildcats since Oct. 14, 1955 — has worked hard this week to ensure acuity after the big win over Washington-Wilkes.

“We just came off Washington-Wilkes, a really powerful team, and I think we were pleasantly surprised with how well we did with them,” said Shirreffs, who added that the team has been reminded several times that the only team to beat both Jefferson and Rabun County was Commerce. “I don’t think anyone expected a victory that large, but moving forward from that, we feel we’re at the top and it’s hard to stay at the top. We’ve got the bulls-eye on us now. I think we’ve already experienced a letdown this season and that was in our opening game; we’ve learned from that. The overall attitude of the team has been positive, so hopefully that carries over to (tonight).”

“We’ve talked every day about how now we’re the guys with the bulls-eye on our backs because of what happened last week,” added McFerrin. “One thing we’ve done is we’ve worked them hard. We’re not taking an easy week and so far we’ve had a good week of practice. We talk about no let-up and we’ve even used the old cliché of taking it one game at a time.

“I know the players are tired of hearing it, but when I ask them what’s the most important game of the season, they say ‘the next game.’ They say that, but they’ve also got to believe it. We’ve got to be sure we’re focused and ready to play because we’re on the road and we’re playing a good offensive team and we can’t have any let-downs.”

Shaw, who recalls losing several close games to Jefferson when he played at Rabun County in the early 1980s, said the Wildcats will have to ascend to a new level tonight to remain unbeaten in league play.

“Jefferson is the best team we’ll have played against up to this point,” he said. “We’ll need our best game we’ve had all year to beat this crew. The good thing is we’re at home and we’ve got some momentum. There have been good games between the two teams and hopefully a lot of that will surface (tonight).”