By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON — With the most scrutinized football game on the schedule upcoming Friday, South Effingham hasn’t had a chance to look backward — and that’s a good thing.
The Mustangs have lost three in a row to start the season, but all that would be a distant memory with a win against cross-county rival Effingham County at Rebel Field.
“A game like this can give you some momentum because it’s against a rival. It’s also the first region game,” said SEHS second-year coach Nathan Clark.
It’s the 27th meeting between the Mustangs and Rebels — a neighborhood series that started when Effingham County High School was divided to form South Effingham in 1996.
ECHS holds a 14-12 edge, but SEHS broke a three-game losing streak with the Rebels last season with a 41-27 win.
Last season’s victory probably seems a long time ago for Mustang fans. South will be coming into this game off a bye week after losses to Metter (26-3), Appling County (42-7) and Wayne County (31-17).
“All three of those teams played smashmouth football so we needed some time off to heal,” said Clark, who had seven key players out against the Yellow Jackets. “We also needed some time to jell together. Obviously, we were behind, but we had been going non-stop for a month and a half.”
For SEHS, the effects of COVID-19 were like allowing an opponent to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Suddenly, the Mustangs were playing catchup. The graduation of key seniors, including a three-year starting quarterback, meant Clark and his coaching staff faced the challenge of preparing a new, inexperienced group.
A shutdown caused by the coronavirus took the breath away from preparation time.
“We had a large turnover on the coaching staff and it’s hard teaching new schemes without spring practice or the summer (workouts),” Clark said. “Offensively, just about everyone there is a new starter and the style of offense we run takes a lot of reps.”
An outbreak of the virus just weeks before opening the season subtracted more valuable practice time for the Mustangs.
Now Clark plays the balancing act of getting injured players time off and spending time on practice. During the off week, he gave the players off Monday and Friday and they scrimmaged on Wednesday. A storm on Tuesday forced the players indoors.
“We’ve been more focused on ourselves,” Clark said. “We needed this week to get better.”
SEHS showed vast improvement while playing competitively against Wayne County on Sept. 25. The Mustangs led at halftime and trailed only 10-7 to begin the fourth quarter.
Clark hopes for four quarters of competitiveness against Effingham County, a squad that began the season 1-3 but played well during a 17-14 loss to Howard last Friday.
There’s a lot to play for and a lot of people will be watching despite the unattractive record. Last season, more than 8,000 fans attended.
“This is a school system of two high schools and the rivalry is intense,” Clark said. “It’s a game (players and fans) look forward to all year long and they want to win badly.”