For a team that has only made the playoffs four times heading into this season, the current Golden Eagles have waited their whole lives for a season like this one. They've got eight wins, which is tied for third most in school history. They're still alive in the Class 4A state playoffs, coming off the most lopsided postseason victory ever for the program -- a 49-22 win over DAR in last week's first round.
The journey continues Friday night when Jacksonville (8-3) plays a second-round game Friday at Oneonta (10-1), which ended the regular season ranked No. 2 in 4A.
“We’ve been working since summer of last year for this,” junior linebacker Savon Parker said. “We came up short last year. It just feels really good to be part of this team.”
Even the oldest of the Jacksonville players were only in middle school when the Golden Eagles made the Class 4A playoffs in 2009, its last appearance. And the last time Jacksonville made the second round was in 1999. Senior Reid Hobbs was 4, Parker was 2 and coach Clint Smith was 22 and just getting into coaching.
“That was my first year as a head coach. I was down at Trinity Presbyterian down in Oxford,” Smith said. “We went 5-4, which was the first winning season in Trinity history, then the next year we won the state championship in eight-man football.”
With Smith now coaching in his second year at Jacksonville, the trip of a lifetime for the Golden Eagles has been quite a ride.
In Week 9, Jacksonville’s Class 4A, Region 5 finale with rival Alexandria ended up being a win-or-go-home situation. Jacksonville won the game 24-23 and wound up finishing second in the region.
The Golden Eagles followed the huge win with a 55-21 loss to Class 3A third-ranked Saks the following week and trailed 16-0 to DAR in the early minutes of the first round of the playoffs last week.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but we’ve done a good job of keeping our focus and being able to rebound from bad situations,” Hobbs said. “We’d go down 16-0 and score 49 unanswered points. The level of focus has changed.”
Jacksonville’s focus has allowed the Golden Eagles to know when to have fun and when to take more of a business-like approach. Smith said players are experiencing winning like never before, so a certain amount of excitement is natural, but added Jacksonville has to handle the success and move forward with the season all at once.
“When you step out onto the field for practice or a game, something has to change,” Hobbs said. “You go from hanging out and laughing with friends or doing school work to focusing on practice and getting ready for the game.”
Preparation is going to be key for Friday night’s game against second-ranked Oneonta. The Redskins have defeated Jacksonville in all four of their previous matchups and have finished as the 4A state runner-up the last two seasons.
This season, Oneonta is averaging 47.2 points a game, scoring at least 50 points in six games, and allowing 9.9 points a game. The Redskins are fresh off a 56-0 win over West Limestone in the first round.
“They’re very well-rounded, which you can tell when you watch film on them,” Smith said. “They’re very seasoned, you can tell they’ve been in two Super Sixes by the way they handle themselves and adversity on the field. They’re just a very mature, fundamental team.”
However, Hobbs pointed out that once you make it past the first round of the playoffs, every team is good and is capable of winning. That includes Jacksonville, which is a win against Oneonta away from its first quarterfinals appearance in school history.
“It’s not like we’ve playing a seven-game series with them. It’s one game,” Smith said. “What’s great about the playoffs is anything can happen. It’s whoever plays best that night. There’ll be time after the season to think about the things we have accomplished. Right now, we’re just focused on Oneonta and how far we can go.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star