Jody Grooms says if you took his football team to a track, grabbed a stopwatch and ordered players to run from here to there, you wouldn't be able to appreciate how fast they are.
On the football field is another story.
Lakeside has transformed into one of the best teams in the area, mostly thanks to a ball- hawking defense that is giving up a classification-best 3.9 points per game. The Panthers play host to Statesboro tonight at 7:30 in a Class AAAA state playoff game, where they will count on their defense to stuff a powerful running game.
"If we went up on a track, we wouldn't be very fast, but our kids play fast because they're prepared," Grooms said. "Our kids, by down and distance and formation, can pretty much (predict) what they're going to see. Most of the time, anyway."
Grooms played quarterback at Catawba College in North Carolina, but said he considers himself a defensive coach. He does not apologize for the strategy of collecting his team's top athletes, putting them on defense and limiting their offensive snaps.
"I just don't think you can win without speed and athleticism on defense; I don't think you have a chance," Grooms said. "We made a commitment a long time ago ... to put our best on the defensive side of the football. ... It takes a certain kind of mentality to play defense. We just have the right mixture of kids over there."
Utilizing the speed and talent of those players has been key. Players credit an off-season weight-lifting program with improving their fitness. They hold on to a belief they can now win with their speed.
"Speed is what wins high school football games," senior Chris Tynan said.
Lakeside saw immediate results from its work, and those results have not wavered no matter which team is lining up across from the Panthers.
In its first game, Lakeside shut out Evans, which went on to average 35.0 points per game the rest of the season. In its final game of the regular season, the Panthers stuffed Josey for 15 plays of no or negative yardage for its sixth shutout, a school record.
A win for Lakeside tonight would be the first state playoff victory in school history.
Statesboro has struggled to score this season -- it has scored more than 17 points just once since Sept. 4 and won one of those games 3-0 -- and runs an offense predicated on grinding runs. Statesboro blanked Lakeside 21-0 two years ago, but Grooms said his team was able to move the ball against the Blue Devils in that game.
"At that time, there was a perceived gap between us and Statesboro -- I hope we've narrowed it enough to be able to compete with them," Grooms said. "This time of the year you don't want to leave anything on the cupboard. I know we're going to get Statesboro's best shot, and I know they're going to get ours, too."