Oconee County High School head coach Travis Noland remembers where the program was when he took the reigns or the Warriors six years ago.
Noland talked about winning championships in the plural tense. Noland was a coach taking over a program that had just finished a nine-year run in which the Warriors did not have a winning season.
It had been a decade and a half since the last state championship. The doubt was easy to spot. Some thought Noland was blowing smoke and dreaming a little too large and far into the future.
“When I came here six years ago and this program was rock bottom basically, I told them I came here to win championships,” Noland said. “People thought I was crazy. Over the last six years our guys have established what it takes to be champions. These guys have been in the program for four years and I’m very proud of them.”
Outside of his proclamation of his expectations for the program under his tutelage, Noland isn’t one to project and worry about things too far ahead. Things are done one week, one practice and one snap at a time.
That very approach is what helped the Warriors to their 17-7 win over Marist that inched the Warriors ever closer to the school’s first football championship since 1999. The win sends the Warriors deeper than they have been since they won the 1999 state title.
The slow build and crescendo effect that got the Warriors to the Elite Eight helped them prepare for the unique challenges presented by Marist.
The Warriors’ defense posted another dominant outing. The Warriors held the War Eagles’ triple option offense to 160 total yards of offense, 51 of which came on one long touchdown by the War Eagles. The Warriors forced three turnovers, two of which came from Liam Lewis interceptions. The second of Lewis’ takeaways sealed the win for the Warriors.
The Warriors have seen the triple option four times this season. Noland felt the games preparing for Jefferson High School, Morgan County High School, St. Pius X Catholic and Madison County High School readied the Warriors for the otherwise rare offense.
“I think we defend the triple option better than anybody in the state of Georgia,” Noland said. “We spent months traveling all over the southeast meeting with different coaches trying to get different ideas because we knew we had to play Jefferson, St. Pius and Madison County. That helped us get ready for Marist. You have to go way back in their history books to find the last time Marist only scored seven points in a playoff game. Our players are the reason it works. It’s not just the schemes.”
The Warriors’ offense wasn’t as explosive as it had been the last two weeks, and it suffered even more throughout much of the game without senior wide receiver Ben Noland who went down with a knee injury. Even so, when the opportunities were there, they struck vital blows.
Max Johnson was 18-for-25 for 197 yards and two touchdowns. Jake Johnson caught eight passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
“We feel for him (Ben Noland), we’re playing for him and all the guys stepped up,” Max said.
With only one other game in town on Friday night, the Warriors saw an electric day-after Thanksgiving crowd. Noland’s seen the work the Warriors have put in and applauds the community for backing the blue-collar bunch.
“I think these players deserve it,” Noland said. “They’ve worked extremely hard. Sometimes great teams aren’t made up of great character, but we’ve got some great character on this team. It’s a team that this community should be proud of.”
The Warriors will host Sandy Creek High School with a trip to the Class 4A state championship game on the line next Friday night at 7:30 p.m. The Patriots defeated OCHS’ Region 8-4A foe Madison County on Friday night.