In Class A, ‘Cinderella’ Bryan County arrives to the ball

Bryan County's Erin Greene looks to throw a stiff-arm to East Laurens defender, Kyan Snead during Friday night's game at Bryan County High School.
Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart / Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart / Savannah Morning News

Bryan County's Erin Greene looks to throw a stiff-arm to East Laurens defender, Kyan Snead during Friday night's game at Bryan County High School. Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

In his decade or so at tiny Bryan County High near Savannah, Albert Lodge was a highly successful baseball coach, a softball coach who won three state championships and, for one forgettable autumn, a hapless football coach.

“We practiced at an elementary school that had no goalposts,” Lodge said this week. “Of course, we didn’t really need to practice. We only won one game, and we didn’t get to kick many.”

Lodge, 77, went on to coach at other schools in a lengthy and distinguished career and now resides in neighboring Liberty County. But his heart belongs to Bryan County, located in county seat Pembroke. And so it is that he has been swept up in the football team’s journey to the Class A Division I state semifinals. It is fresh territory for a school that, before this season, had never won a state playoff game in its history.

“I keep thinking, ‘When’s it going to end?’” Lodge said in a phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is really a Cinderella story.”

It is the story of a coach with a football rearing that few can match, a determined crew of homegrown seniors and a community that has waited a long time for such a combination to achieve historic successes on the field. The school, which has an enrollment of a little less than 600, will shut down early Friday to give students and supporters time to make the drive to Bogart near Athens to play powerhouse Prince Avenue Christian.

“Just an unbelievable, unforgettable season,” said athletic director Blaine Ennis, herself a Bryan County alumna and the mother of one of the team’s stars, linebacker/running back/receiver Tanner Ennis.

The run to the semifinals – 10th-ranked Bryan County (12-1) is one of 32 teams in the state still playing out of 412 – is stunning particularly against the backdrop of the team’s history. For a variety of reasons – funding, lack of interest and frequent turnover of coaching staffs among them – the team had made the state playoffs five times in the team’s first 46 seasons and had never advanced past the first round.

Coach Cherard Freeman has effected this drastic turnaround. After leading a successful rebuild at Warren County, he took the job before the 2020 season to be significantly closer to his home in Statesboro. When he arrived, Bryan County had won one of its previous 28 games. The most recent winning season was 2013.

Freeman learned the game from two coaching giants. One is National High School Hall of Famer Larry Campbell, the former coach at small-school powerhouse Lincoln County High. The other is former College Football Hall of Famer Paul Johnson, who coached Freeman at Georgia Southern. For good measure, one of his position coaches in Statesboro was Jeff Monken, now the coach with the second most wins in Army history.

“Coach Johnson and coach Campbell were kind of like together for the fact that they believe in trying to do the little things right, a lot of discipline,” said Freeman, 46, married with two children. “As long as you do what you’re supposed to do, you’re going to have fun.”

Johnson said that Freeman “got the most out of his ability or as much as anybody who ever played for me. He played A-back. We kept trying to replace him, but we couldn’t. He just wouldn’t let guys who were faster and bigger beat him out.”

Freeman pulled on two significant levers – a group of incoming freshmen that had been highly successful in youth football days and the GHSA’s permission to move down from Class 2A, where many of the school’s teams had been overmatched by larger schools, to Class A. Freeman threw the freshmen onto the varsity, where they predictably didn’t win a game and were outscored 46-304.

“It was tough,” said Tanner Ennis, who remembers weighing about 135 pounds as a freshman. “We were all undersized, all freshmen. Having to play against seniors, it wasn’t easy.”

Bryan County's Jacari Carney drags East Laurens defensive back Terrez Snead and Jamichael Carswell (14) to the end zone during Friday Night's game, Nov. 10, 2023, at Bryan County High School.
Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart / Savannah Morning News

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Credit: Richard Burkhart / Savannah Morning News

Freeman drove players in the weight room and on the practice field. They stopped the losing streak as sophomores and then made the playoffs as juniors in 2022.

“Coach Freeman, honestly, when it’s the football team and we’re just chilling out, he’s one of the boys,” quarterback and safety Sean Kelly Hill said. “But when it comes time to be serious, he’s serious.”

Before the season, Freeman set three goals before the team – winning the region, hosting a playoff game and winning a playoff game. None had been previously accomplished in school history. And now they all have. Bryan County earned its semifinal berth with a 24-16 win Friday over No. 3 Commerce. Hill threw a last-minute, fourth-down touchdown pass (of “15ish yards,” according to Hill) in front of a record home crowd garbed in the school’s red and white.

Hearing encouragement from teachers and neighbors “makes me feel good,” said running back and linebacker Austin Clemons, a 4.0 GPA student. “I’m not going to lie. Because I always want to make my community proud. And I know the team, that’s what we all want to do.”

It has been an autumn unlike any other in Pembroke, a one-stoplight town of about 2,500.

“I think we’ve got a McDonald’s and then a Subway and one Mexican restaurant, and that’s it,” Ennis said.

Of the 21 seniors on the team, at least nine have parents who both went to Bryan County and a 10th with one such parent, according to Blaine Ennis, the AD. Of the students in the senior class, “probably every one of them” grew up in Bryan County, according to Hill, the quarterback. The ZIP code encompassing Pembroke is about 79% white and 15% black, according to Census Reporter. Families with wealth live among those with less means.

“It’s definitely a small town,” Tanner Ennis said. “Not many people know where it is. But it’s a great community.”

It is a community that faces significant change. Hyundai has broken ground on a nearly $7.6 billion plant in the county that is promised to bring 8,500 jobs by 2031.

“We think our schools are going to explode,” said county resident Noah Covington, who played for Bryan County along with more than 15 members of his extended family, including a nephew (Carlin Covington) on this year’s team. “Here’s what’s really cool to me about this, is that this is the homegrown bunch. This is not the new population.”

The challenge to keep the journey going will grow exponentially Friday. Top-ranked Prince Avenue Christian (12-1) has won state titles two of the past three years and is quarterbacked by Aaron Philo, who has thrown for 13,112 yards in his career and committed to play at Georgia Tech. That’s third all-time in state history, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association.

It’ll be a sophisticated passing attack versus the time-honored and ground-oriented Wing-T. With a win, Bryan County – a team that until this November had never recorded a state playoff win – will be in the state title game.

“I’m just telling them, hey, man, we’ve got four quarters,” Freeman said. “If we can tie three and win one, then we play for the state championship.”

If they can make it there, Albert Lodge and all Bryan County supporters can rest assured – Mercedes-Benz Stadium has its own goalposts.