Visitors bedeviled at Lincoln County
By Scott Michaux| Columnist
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Spend any Friday night in the visiting bleachers at Buddy Bufford Field and without fail you will hear the chorus.

The familiar refrain is sung over and over on fall evenings, whether the primary colors are those of McCormick or Aquinas or Eagle's Landing Christian or Washington-Wilkes. You hear it muttered softly by frustrated assistant coaches or bellowed at full throat by irritated fans outside the press box windows.

"Welcome to Lincoln County football," is the envy-tinged chant, typically barked the first time any official throws a flag against the visitors. According to the chorus, the referees are mere marionettes and Red Devils head coach Larry Campbell is the puppeteer. It doesn't matter if the crew is from Atlanta and never been to Lincolnton before, it must be rigged.

"That's just football fans," said Campbell, shrugging off the criticism.

The chorus really never rests. You can hear it now in online vents where folks chimed in that Campbell somehow managed to cheat Savannah Christian out of the home field in this week's quarterfinal at the coin toss on Saturday morning. Forget the fact that neither Campbell nor any other representative from Lincoln County was even present for the flip or even called heads or tails.

This is what it's like being the most consistently successful program in the state of Georgia.

No way Campbell and his kids can win all of those state and region titles and be the winningest program with talent and teaching alone. There must be some kind of conspiracy to keep it going.

"(Savannah Christian), I hope you guys are ready to battle the referees," wrote one venter. "Lincoln County plays dirty ball! They have their own personal zebras/chain gang."

Pointing out that visitors in Lincolnton have been treated to 15 fewer penalties for nearly 100 fewer yards this season doesn't stop the theorists.

"They make 'key' decisions on calls that change the game, then throw in calls here or there against Lincoln to blow smoke," another venter reasoned.

It doesn't matter that the best seats in Lincolnton are the 1,500 with backs on the visitors' side. Or that they get the most modern and comfortable press box and film stand. Or that they get the biggest and most convenient dressing room in the adjacent gym.

The chorus goes on just like the Red Devils' seven consecutive Region 7-A titles and 85 percent win rate under Campbell.

"They got to blame it on something so they blame it on me," said the state's most successful coach with 437 victories and 11 state championships on his resume. "I've been here and I'm a pretty good target. ... I don't pay that no attention at all. We give the officials as hard a time as anybody, probably too hard. But once the ball game is over it's over. I ain't never scratched an official in (38) years."

Of all the accomplishments Campbell's Devils have achieved over the past 38 seasons, this year's team reaching the quarterfinals of the Class A playoffs ranks right up there. Even Campbell never imagined this squad would still be practicing over Thanksgiving to prepare for Savannah Christian on Friday night.

"It's just been one of the best seasons of my career," said Campbell of his first squad in memory that wasn't even considered a top-10 team in Class A at the start of the season, much less predicted for its usual lofty perch in the range of No. 1 to 4. "I didn't see any chance of us getting to the third round."

Whatever chance Lincoln County had for success this season surely rested on the legs of A.G. Middlebrooks. The nephew of Red Devils legend Garrison Hearst was the biggest star on a team that graduated 22 seniors last year and lost two starting defensive tackles to preseason surgeries.

"We still put together a pretty good team as long as we had A.G.," said Campbell of his prized running back. "You give it to him enough times he's going to break one or two."

Middlebrooks, however, was never at full strength after a stress fracture in his leg sidelined him the entire preseason. When his leg broke against Commerce before the region schedule even started, Lincoln County's hopes surely broke with him.

"When he went down we had a mindset a little bit of we might as well get started for the next season," Campbell said.

Yet this season is still steering forward in spite of everything.

The 2009 version of the Red Devils even has its own faithful scratching their heads in bewilderment.

One loyal Lincoln County observer remarked Friday night before the second round that the Red Devils "have to be the worst 10-1 team in the state."

"If he's judging us by pure talent, he's probably exactly right," Campbell admits. "I don't know what's so special except they don't want to lose and try to do everything within reach to keep that from happening."

Such as last Friday night when a high-wire Houdini act let the Red Devils escape with a 47-39 victory over Eagle's Landing Christian in which Lincoln County scored 21 unanswered points in the final eight-and-a-half minutes.

Even Campbell considered it the most startling comeback of any team he's coached in 38 seasons.

"There were times I didn't see how we were going to win that game," Campbell admitted after the Devils erased a 13-point fourth quarter deficit. "We ain't won a game easy. Every one of them has been somewhat close. I don't know anything to put that on except it's been a good ride and so far we haven't come up on the short end."

The Red Devils have always followed the mantra that defense wins championships. It's the only thing that's kept them going this year with the offense struggling more than any Lincoln County team in recent memory. But when the defense -- playing without suspended star Marquis Parks -- yielded its most points since Campbell's first year at the helm in 1972, the offense stepped up when it had to and delivered the chance to play another week.

"Everybody knew they had to play a little harder to make up for one of our better players," Campbell said of Parks' one-game suspension. "We didn't even talk about it. We just knew as a team, even the coaches, we had to pick it up a notch."

That's what Lincoln County does. It did it by stepping up after Middlebrooks broke his leg at Commerce. It did it in surviving a scoreless tie at archrival Washington-Wilkes to prevail in overtime. It did it by scoring twice in the fourth quarter to edge Warren County. It did it by rallying from a halftime deficit to clinch its 31st region title in 35 years at Wilkinson County.

"We're extremely proud that this team won a region championship over Wilkinson County because we really didn't think there was going to be one," he said. "We could have lost to anybody we played this year."

And so the chorus will resume Friday night at Buddy Bufford when most people believe Savannah Christian will finish what Trion and Eagle's Landing couldn't.

"Maybe we've gone as far as we can go," Campbell said.

Maybe, but betting against Campbell's Devils is never a sure thing.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

From the Thursday, November 26, 2009 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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