Photo by Brian Paglia / Stockbridge coach Kevin Whitley knew Saturday’s game against No. 4 M.L. King would be a big challenge for the Tigers.
STOCKBRIDGE — Playing against M.L. King was all part of the plan for Stockbridge coach Kevin Whitley. It was a season-opening challenge against a top-5 opponent with an impressive reputation for success, a measuring stick to gauge the Tigers’ progress in Whitley’s fourth season.
Losing 23-0 may not have been part of the plan — nor the bad snap on a punt or the four fumbles on offense — but Stockbridge isn’t looking back.
Instead, it’s relishing the lessons learned from the loss to a Lions program ranked No. 4 in Class AAAAA.
“You start getting pre-season rankings and that sort of thing then you want to see how good you really are,” Whitley said. “M.L. King is definitely one of those schools in the top 10 every year, lots of athletes and you like to see how your kids match up.”
Coming off a school-record nine wins and its first playoff victory ever, Stockbridge (0-1) entered the season ranked No. 9 in Class AAAA. It was the first time the Tigers earned a pre-season ranking since 1968, according to the Georgia High School Historians Association.
But that meant little to Whitley.
“All that’s fluff,” he said.
So Whitley scheduled M.L. King to open this season. The Lions have won at least 10 games six times since the school opened in 2002 and went 12-1 last season, losing in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals.
M.L. King resembled Carrollton, a reputable program that brings a playoff-like atmosphere everywhere it goes and gave Stockbridge a humbling dose of it last season in the Class AAA second round.
A 35-10 loss later, Whitley realized his team needed to get ready sooner in the season.
“I just wanted the kids to get used to a big-time program,” Whitley said. “We went to Carrollton last year [in the playoffs] and got kind of shell-shocked. We’re just trying to get the playoff atompshere early in the season so we can correct our mistakes and get better.”
Plenty of mistakes materialized.
Down just 7-0 at halftime, Stockbridge accomplished exactly what Whitley set out during the intermission. The Tigers forced M.L. King to go three-and-out, but a roughing-the-kicker penalty gave the Lions new life.
Still down 7-0 mid-way through the third quarter, the Tigers just needed to punt and flip the field, but a bad snap gave M.L. King a safety, possession and momentum.
Twice the Tigers were caught with 10 players on the field.
It became a slippery slope that Stockbridge couldn’t stop.
“It was a shock,” Tigers senior quarterback Trenton Earl said. “We went into the game pumped up and ready to play. We wanted a chance to shock the world for once, because nobody thought we were going to win the game. So if we came out there and beat M.L. King, a top powerhouse, our confidence is up and then we roll through our season.”
Now, the Tigers face the rest of their early-season schedule, which features four consecutive games against opponents who made the playoffs last season. It starts Friday with Upson-Lee. The Trojans went 6-5 a year ago to end a five-year playoff drought.
And now Stockbridge knows exactly what needs fixing.
“We’ve got to play as a team,” Earl said. “We can’t do anything if each guy doesn’t do his job. Without each man doing what they have to do, we can’t work together.”