E.A. Sports Today

That championship feeling

Herring still riding emotional wave a week after guiding Pierce County to its first Georgia state football title in school history

Pierce County and former Oxford coach Ryan Herring talks with his team after its Georgia semifinal with over Crisp County. In the insert, Herring stands with the Georgia Class AAA state championship trophy. (Photos by Jennifer Carter Johnson Photography/The Blackshear Times)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

It’s been just over a week since his Pierce County football team won its first state championship in school history and head coach Ryan Herring is still over the moon about it.

With the Class AAA overtime thriller over top-ranked Oconee County still fresh in his mind, Herring was able to slip away back to Oxford to visit his mother for New Year’s. That championship feeling was still so fresh you could bet on the drive from South Georgia and back the wheels never touched the road.

“I’m glowing,” he said. “I’m still in the clouds. You can’t touch me even if you wanted to.”

Herring won the title in his second year with the Bears, returning to the place he had been defensive coordinator early in his career after a six-year run with the Yellow Jackets that produced 50 wins and five playoff appearances. He described his new digs as a “hard-working, blue-collar community” of farmers, woodmen and CSX railway workers that “loves their kids and loves their football.”

The whole experience, he said, takes him back to his youth.

“It feels like you’re in the 1980s; it feels like you’re going back in time,” he said. “I loved the ‘80s now, loved the ‘80s. I was in the seventh grade and we won a state championship (two actually). Those were just great times back then.”

Although he called his decision to leave Oxford “the toughest I’ve ever had to make,” he stepped into a good situation and the Bears had a good run in his first year, suffering their only loss of the season in the second round of the playoffs. They took it all the way this year, beating a Crisp County team with six Division I prospects on defense in the semifinals and then putting together some overtime magic in the finals of a game that was scoreless through three quarters.

That’s the short version of the season. The long version is it was a difficult year. Like everyone they had to overcome the obstacles put forth by a season undermined by COVID-19. But to keep everything going and the core players working out during the shutdowns, they distributed training equipment in eight locations throughout a county that’s about half the size of Calhoun County with 10 fewer football-playing high schools – as in one.

They went into barns, carports, back porches, basically anything with a covered space. They even set up a station in Herring’s garage for the players who lived in his neighborhood.

“We felt like we came up short last year a little bit, not that we would’ve won it, but I just felt like we had some more games in us when we lost,” Herring said. “I knew we had enough coming back that if we could put the pieces of the puzzle together we had a chance to be pretty good.

“We went into the offseason with a passion and a fire to just be the best we could be whatever that means. We had a great offseason in the winter, had some of the best numbers I’ve ever been a part of in the weight room, and then all of a sudden COVID hit and all of a sudden we’re out of school.

“We basically set up weight rooms all throughout the county and I think that helped us get ahead and stay ahead of some people. We knew a lot of people across the state probably were going to flat line a little bit with all the restrictions and we looked at it as a chance to get ahead.”

The overtime in the championship game didn’t last long. Pierce County’s Daytin Baker intercepted the first play of the extra session and the Bears scored on their first snap when D.J. Bell ran in from the 15.

“I don’t know how it could be any more special,” Herring said. “It reminds me a lot of the ’88 Oxford championship. The first time in school history doing it. Just magical. Just extremely blessed with great high school kids, great high school football players … The bottom line is we had special kids. We didn’t have a lot of the tangibles you write about, you hear about, but we had a lot of the intangibles you can’t see.”

Since winning the title, Herring has received an outpouring of texts and messages of congratulations from throughout the South. Several have been “just great texts” from people he knows in Oxford, referencing his father, legendary Yellow Jackets coach Robert Herring, smiling down with pride. The elder Herring passed away in March.

Now that they’ve won one, how about two? His father did it back-to-back with the Yellow Jackets (and again four years later). The Bears do return four starters on each side of the ball.

That will be a discussion for another time. For now, Herring is having too much fun enjoying the spoils of this year.

“Somebody asked me that and I said right now I’m going to enjoy this one,” he said. “Don’t ask me about repeating. Right now, we’re just going to enjoy this one right here.”

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