COVINGTON - Eastside's football team had a lot of firsts this year.
They were the first Eastside team to win a region championship, to win 11 games, to make it to the quarterfinals and to win six straight games.
The Eagles started their season 5-0, including wins over Alcovy and Newton to retain the Newton County championship and a 38-14 win over Region 8-AAA powerhouse Stephens County.
"When we beat Stephens County, I felt like then we were 5-0 and everybody started thinking about an undefeated season," Eastside coach Rick Hurst said. "But I knew if we beat one of those teams (Stephens County or Hart County) it would put us in a good situation to at least qualify for the playoffs."
However, the perfect season was squashed when Eastside traveled to Hartwell, losing to Hart County 24-7.
Following the loss, the Eagles came back strong, demolishing everyone in their way for the rest of the season.
The Eagles outscored their opponents 168-14.
"The 5-0 start was impressive. But the rebound we made after the Hart County loss, I've never seen a group more focused as those guys were," Hurst said. "If you had told me we would've beat Oconee County the way we did, then Morgan County and Franklin County, I would've said you were crazy. But those kids had a mission to make it to the playoffs. They knew if we kept winning we'd end up No. 1 or No. 2."
Eastside continued its trend in the playoffs, beating Creekview 20-6 and Carrollton 21-9 before losing to eventual Class AAA state champion Cairo 23-6.
When Hurst looked back on the season, he said the win over Newton helped put everything in focus.
"The overtime win against Newton was big," Hurst said. "Ever since I've been here it's given us the idea of what our season is going to go. It let me know that our kids were mature and they could handle the pressure of the game. There was more pressure on that game than there was to win the Carrollton game."
Behind senior quarterback Justin Wray, the Eagles scored 373 points while rushing for 3,039 yards and passing for 1,387.
Wray was 99 of 154 (64 percent) with nine passing touchdowns and six interceptions.
On the ground, he gained 513 yards on 93 tries and had 11 TDs.
Broderick Alexander paced the team running the ball, gaining 954 yards on 102 carries and scoring 16 touchdowns.
Also having an impact was junior Gitt Aiken with 833 rushing yards on 94 carries and eight scores.
Wray's primary target was Andrico Bailey, who had 26 catches for 431 yards and two touchdowns, followed by Antarrious Terrell, who had 328 yards on 18 receptions, with two for touchdowns.
"Offensively, you can't talk about us without mentioning Justin Wray, who was region player of the year," Hurst said. "Broderick Alexander had a tremendous year, almost 1,000 yards rushing. You have to figure he would've had it he had played the second half of those four or five games he didn't play.
"We expected Gitt to do things, but I didn't think he would have the type of year he was going to have."
Defensively, the Eagles held teams to 145 points for the season.
A big part of that accomplishment had to go to defensive end Karl Williams and Jacorey Maddox.
"On the defensive side, I feel that Karl coming back and having the type of year that he did helped," Hurst said. "Then Jacorey on the other side did a good job."
Hunter Parker led the team with 137 tackles, 54 solo and 72 assist, with Brandon Pettit finishing with 121 (47, 54).
Williams terrorized opposing backfields with 10 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Williams, Pettit and Parker each forced three fumbles while Quay Maddox paced the team with two of Eastside's 11 fumble recoveries and five pass breakups.
The team forced 20 fumbles this year.
"Our boys put the program back on the map," Hurst said. "Not everybody wants to play us just for their homecoming. Of course to really do something you have to sustain a program. That's what I want to do. I don't want us to be a one-season wonder. Are we going to make it back to the quarterfinals again next year? I don't know. But we're going to shoot for it."
Manny Fils can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.