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CHATSWORTH -- The North Murray High School football team has its first appearance in the Elite Eight tonight, but it's not the only thing the Mountaineers have done for the first time this season.
North Murray takes on Jenkins in Savannah in a Class 3A quarterfinal matchup at 7:30 p.m. While the game is possibly the biggest the school has ever had since it opened in 2010, the team and its players have taken the long road to get there.
For starters, this year's seniors -- around 20 players -- will be coach Preston Poag's first graduating class since taking over the program four years ago.
"These guys have played a lot of football," Poag said. "They know what it's like to play in the playoffs and we've had to go through a lot of stuff to get here. What goes through my mind is the last four years. I love all my teams, but (this team doesn't) know anything different.
"Until you get kids for all four years, they won't necessarily know where you're trying to go with things. They won't know how you want your program to be or what the culture is supposed to be like. They won't know how to act, how to prepare and how to play. It's a big deal."
Poag has led the Mountaineers to a playoff appearance each season he has been with the team, reaching the second round his first year in 2016 and the first round in both 2017 and 2018. Poag's first year at the helm was the first time the school had made the playoffs.
Heading into tonight's game, Poag said he doesn't want to overshadow what the Mountaineers (11-1, 8-0 in Region 6-3A) have done this season. But, there is still a lot they want to accomplish.
The team held a walk-through practice on Thursday morning before taking a break to be at home with their families for Thanksgiving. North Murray held a send-off at the school Thursday afternoon before the team traveled the approximate five-hour drive to Savannah to stay for the night.
"When you practice on Thanksgiving, you're a good team," Poag said. "Those are awesome memories. It's just been really cool -- really cool for the kids."
On the long drive, players and coaches had plenty of time to think about their other first-feats of the year.
Most notably on Sept. 20, North Murray traveled to Calhoun and broke a 139-game winning game streak the Yellow Jackets held over region opponents as it came home with a win, 31-7. Most Mountaineer players weren't even born the last time Calhoun had lost a region game -- a 14-7 loss to Darlington on Oct. 19, 2001.
Calhoun went 17 years with an unblemished region record, and finished second to North Murray this season after the Mountaineers finished undefeated in region play to win its first football region title in school history.
Under Poag's direction, North Murray has been building up its matchup's with Calhoun -- even holding a 10-0 lead at halftime last year -- but ultimately falling short until this season. It wasn't until late in the fourth quarter when Poag said he knew the game was out of reach for the Yellow Jackets this year, never wanting to break his focus.
The pure determination in Poag's demeanor has combined with the dedication his players have for the game for something he said is very special.
"This team -- they don't get rattled. Sometimes, you will get beat on a play or maybe someone throws a long one on you but it's about how you respond," he said. "I really think we respond well to that kind of stuff because there is no finger-pointing. The offense might be struggling, but the defense will pick us up. Maybe the defense is struggling, but the offense will pick us up. We've played really sound on special teams all year, too, so that's a big deal.
"I'm the type, though, I don't panic either. You can kind of tell with younger teams and sense when the momentum shifts. Sometimes when the snowball starts spinning, you can't stop it. But this year, I haven't felt that even one time. I've never felt like any other team has held the momentum very long. Even if they did, we always snatch it right back."
Momentum was possibly the biggest saving grace for the Mountaineers in the school's first Sweet 16 win last week over Jackson, 24-14.
North Murray quarterback Ladd McConkey, who has led the team this seaosn with his ability to make plays out of virtually nothing, had an uncharacteristic three interceptions and a lost fumble recovery in the win. Jackson had the ball in North Murray territory three times to start the game, yet came up with nothing to show for it.
The Mountaineers began with stuffing Jackson on 4th-and-short and then subsequently blocking a field goal.
"It was just one of those games," Poag said. "You don't see many games when you have more turnovers than your opponent and still win.
"It was a game that we kept the momentum. In my mind I was just thinking about how the other team's body language was down and you could tell just by watching them. I told the guys that at halftime and in the second half, we just wore them down."
Poag said the Mountaineers will have to play much cleaner if they hope to defeat Jenkins (11-1, 8-0 in Region 3-3A), who enters tonight's matchup averaging 40 points a game.
"In the playoffs, you can't give up big plays. It'll be the type of game that whoever makes the most mistakes is going to lose," he said. "It wasn't our best game last week, but our defense has played well all year and saved us."
On the other hand, North Murray has the luxury of a wide-open playbook, led by McConkey.
"When you've got a mobile quarterback, it helps a bunch," Poag said. "He's just a leader but there are other people, too. It's not like if Ladd doesn't go, we don't go. We've got lots of other people."
McConkey has had a stellar year, as well, as a defensive back alongside D'Ante Tidwell who doubles as a speedy running back. Noah Lunsford has also seen time running the ball, while Hayden Hulett, Landon Burrell and Chaisen Buckner have been popular targets for McConkey through the air. Buckner and Dylan Flood have held the ground as linebackers, backed by a veteran offensive and defensive line, too.
Though North Murray and Jenkins are both No. 1 seeds from their region, the Mountaineers learned they would travel after a universal coin flip by the Georgia High School Association gave either the bottom or the top of the playoff bracket the home field advantage. If the team is to win tonight, North Murray will travel again to the winner of Jefferson at Crisp County -- both No. 1 seeds as well -- when another coin flip was conducted this week for the semifinal matchups.
Regardless of where it plays, Poag said he believes with the experience his players have, this might be the first time the team wins an Elite Eight game, too, opposed to just making an appearance.
"It's right in front of them," he said. "We've got the chance to make more memories now."