THOMASVILLE -- The idea was, Thomas County Central head coach Ed Pilcher would gather his team off the field from the 2002 Class AAAA championship game at Thomson, drive them back to Thomasville, sequester them in the gymnasium until August, then go undefeated and win a sixth state title.

It didn't quite work out that way. After leading the Class AAAA polls for most of the season, Pilcher's club got upended by Ware County in its final regular-season game.

But PIlcher did rally the troops and get his Thomas County Central Yellow Jackets into the Class AAAA semifinal back at the Georgia Dome for a second straight season. Pilcher's club fell to Marist, 35-21 but finished a fine 12-2.

Pilcher was once again named the Times-Enterprise Football Coach of the Year.

"I don't think any coach comes into a season thinking he can win a state title," Pilcher said. "There are so many factors involved, particularly in a region like ours where you knew Ware County was going to be so dang good.

"But we felt like we had a team that was capable of making the playoffs," he said. "And once you do that, if you get the right draw and play well and stay healthy..."

Sadly, the Jackets didn't stay healthy. That started with Pilcher himself. Near the end of three-a-days, Pilcher developed a few blisters on his foot. Next thing you knew, Pilcher, who'd had knee replacement surgery a year ago, was in a hospital with a staph infection.

"It sure wasn't much fun," Pilcher said. "No question about it."

By the time the coach was ready to return to practice, he had to use a golf cart. And the team was a bit shaky, too. In scrimmages with Lowndes and Valdosta (two strong teams, it turned out) Central didn't look particularly impressive. Critics wondered how Central, returning All-State quarterback Erik Walden, standout running backs David Dawson and Moses Cochran, could play so spottily?

The answer was, Central had to break in a new offensive line, which took a little time. And the Jackets were moving a few people around from offense to defense and vice versa. It was going to take a while to sort out.

Once it did, the Jackets started rolling. After an impressive second half at Colquitt County, Central simply blew Thomasville's doors off, scoring 56 points with breathtaking ease. Central seemed to be gathering momentum.

But all the while, Pilcher was fearful of what would happen down the road. The team didn't really have a receiving threat.

"We kind of knew that from Day One," Pilcher said. "Of course, we didn't advertise it. And it wasn't that our kids weren't trying hard or improving. It's just that some years, you're a little light in some areas."

So Walden, who threw for 1,513 yards a year ago, would have to carry more of the load, along with backfield mates Cochran and Dawson. And it worked. The three of them, for the first time in Central football history, rushed for more than 1,000 yards.

And Central was again a top contender, rolling through the first nine games without a loss. But an injury to Walden's knee in the Bainbridge game forced Pilcher's hand a bit. He started Cochran against Ware County in the duel for the Region 1-AAAA title and it was rough. After four turnovers on Central's first four possessions, the team was shaken. Heading into the fourth quarter, Ware County led 24-7.

Amazingly, Pilcher and company came back, twice taking the team in the game's final three minutes.

"It was a great effort by our kids," Pilcher said. "They left it all on the field."

From there, Central rolled all the way to the Georgia Dome, defeating Pebblebrook, Thomson and M.L. King. But Marist, after losing to Central five previous times, proved to be too difficult.

"We just made too many mistakes," Pilcher said. "I feel as though we're a better team than Marist, we had more yards than they did. But you can't make mistakes against a team like that."

So the dream of a state title turned out to be just that, a dream.

But after a 12-2 season and a second straight trip to the Dome, Thomas County Central football was back in the big time. That was something to celebrate, too.

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