Ware County has made the playoffs 11 consecutive seasons, but still manages to sneak up on opponents each year. Nestled in the southeast corner of the state, the Gators battled all the way to Atlanta in 2012 to face Gainesville for the Class AAAAA championship. During their playoff run, they beat Lakeside-Evans, Union Grove, Stephenson and then Northside-Warner Robins in overtime. Gainesville was the hotter team, however, and a couple early turnovers and mistakes allowed the Red Elephants to run away with the state championship 49-13.
"I think that it [the loss] serves as a motivator for all of the returning players," said Ware County head coach Ed Dudley. "It was hard to get to that final game and get embarrassed. We used it as a positive thing in the offseason to try and get guys to crank up their workouts and go 'hey man let's get back to that so we can show people we can perform better than we did in 2012.'"
The extra motivation seen this offseason has Dudley pleased with some key guys he has returning. At quarterback is Jamar Johnson, who has the athleticism and experience to star in a dangerous Gators offense.
"We are going to green-light Jamar to run the ball a little bit more this year and that's really one of his strengths," said Dudley. "Because we were so thin early in the backup quarterback position last year we were conservative with him. We can turn him loose a little bit more [this season] to run."
Johnson will have to help fill the shoes left by Xavier Tobler (Georgia Southern), who was considered the Gators' best player last season. Tobler started at linebacker and running back and was all-state on both sides. On offense, Tobler rushed for over 1,700 yards.
"That's going to be the toughest player to replace," said Dudley about Tobler.
"If we can get a guy, or a committee of guys to do what he did then I think we have a chance to be really competitive."
Jimal McBride (Middle Tennessee commitment) will be the other big vacancy to account for. McBride had 127 tackles, six sacks and 27 tackles-for-loss from the defensive tackle position. McBride was the AJC Class AAAAA defensive player of the year in 2012. Six starters return on defense including Dedrick Mills, Wayne Coleman and Cat Jenkins. Quay Taylor will play both sides of the ball again at running back and defensive back. Dudley believes that this unit will be the key to getting his team on track in 2013.
"I think just because of who we are at Ware County our defense is going to have to rise to the occasion early," said Dudley. "When we play guys two ways or when we do personnel, we give the nod to our defense. In the playoffs [last year] they really did carry the day for us, so early on we will be looking to rebuild that defense."
Ware County went 7-0 in Region 3-AAAAA last season and will likely be battling with 2012 runner-up Richmond Hill for this year's region crown. In 2012, Ware County escaped with a 27-24 win against Richmond Hill. The Wildcats return a defense that allowed just 9.0 points-per game last season. Ware County will scrimmage Valdosta on Aug. 16 and open up against Class-AAAAAA Coffee. In the 2012 season-opener, Coffee beat Ware County 21-14 before the Gators tallied 13 straight wins.