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Buckeyes prepare to face Rabbits

By JOE DODD
Turn back the clock to December, 2003. The undefeated Gilmer Buckeyes, and their high-scoring offense, took the field against the Atlanta Rabbits; a team with four losses, and a plodding, ball-control offense. All Buckeyes’ fans know what happened. The Rabbits dominated the Buckeyes 34-14, on their way to capturing the Class 3A state championship two games later.
In the 3 seasons since that meeting, the two teams have gone in opposite directions. Gilmer is 30-2, and won the Class 3A state championship the following year. Atlanta is 6-19, and hasn’t made the playoffs since.
Back to the present. The 4-0 Gilmer Buckeyes are the state’s highest scoring team, at 57 points per game. The Atlanta Rabbits are 0-5, losing each game by an average of 25 points. Looks like Gilmer head coach Jeff Traylor should be writing his post-game victory speech, right?
“There’s not a better team in the state, that hasn’t won a game, than the Atlanta Rabbits,” said Traylor, who pointed out that all of Atlanta’s losses are to 4A teams with a combined record of 17-4. “They’re playing great 4A’s; they’re not just playing average 4A’s.” The Rabbits have lost to Dallas Woodrow Wilson, Hallsville, Kilgore, Mount Pleasant and Texarkana Texas High.
“I tell my team when [an opponent] is bad, and I tell my team when [an opponent] is good,” Traylor stated. “This is why I do it; when I tell my kids that [an opponent] can play, they believe me. They know Atlanta can play.”
If they don’t believe him, he just reminds them of that 2003 game. “We were 13-0, and Atlanta was 9-4, and they kicked our tails. They physically beat us up,” Traylor continued. “Every one of these kids in the program, except for [quarterback] G.J. [Kinne], grew up wanting to be a Buckeye. They were all sitting in those stands.”
In Traylor’s seven seasons at the Buckeyes’ helm, his team has never lost back-to-back games to an opponent. That’s a streak that Atlanta head coach Ben Scharnberg would like to change. “He’s an excellent coach, and his staff does an excellent job,” Scharnberg said. “We’d love to put a new asterisk in there, but we know it’s going to be awfully tough.”
Traylor sounds just as cautious. “You would think, as much as they’re getting beat, these kids at some point would shut down, and they don’t. They just keep playing hard, and that concerns me.”
Another concern is that Atlanta’s big game experience is equal to the Buckeyes. “We’re just lining up again against another number one ranked team in the state of Texas,” said Scharnberg, who faced 4A’s top-ranked team, Texas High just last week. “We’ve got to accept the challenge and get after it.”
Traylor said that the Buckeyes face a similar challenge. “I would compare them to Tatum, in how fast they run. But their physical toughness I would compare to a Celina,” said Traylor, who looks to improve on his 65-13 record at Gilmer. “We better play better than we have on offense and defense this year, or we won’t leave there with a victory,” Traylor predicted.
“If we can win this game, it will be a big win. To go into Atlanta and finish off our non-district schedule 5-0 would be huge,” continued Traylor, who played a hand he rarely shows. “We need our crowd to be there, and we need to be loud. This is a big game, and I don’t ask our crowd very often to be somewhere, but we’re going to need them Friday night.”
When Atlanta has the football
“We make no bones about it; we’re not a throwing football team. Everybody knows that around here. We’re a ball-control offense,” said Scharnberg, whose statement is backed up by the Rabbits’ offensive averages of 188 yards rushing and only 34 yards passing per game. Atlanta may call it ball control, but Traylor has another name for it. “Very hard-nosed, physical, old-fashioned style of football.”
The Rabbits line up in the traditional “I” formation, and sophomore quarterback Donta McNeely hands off to senior fullback Roosevelt Falls or senior tailback Brandon Stiger. They run behind an all-senior offensive line. Atlanta ran for 264 yards against Hallsville and put up 306 rushing yards against Mt. Pleasant.
Scharnberg admits that his offensive philosophy also plays a role in his defensive strategy against Gilmer. We want to control the football, and keep the ball out of [Gilmer’s] hands, because they are so quick-strike oriented, they can score in a heartbeat, with No. 3 [Curtis Brown] and No. 5 [Jamell Kennedy], and Kinne is an outstanding athlete.”
Gilmer will counter Atlanta ’s ground attack with a reorganized defense that debuted last week by limiting Center to only 106 total yards. The defensive changes followed the Buckeyes giving up 42 points and 546 total yards against Daingerfield. Traylor said that his defense still has a lot to learn but, “I feel our upside is a lot greater with this group. We have more potential here. But understand that word ‘potential’ is also very dangerous. Technically, we’re nowhere near where we need to be, but athletically we’re a lot better.”
When Gilmer has the football
The Buckeyes couldn’t be more different from the Rabbits if they tried. Using a balanced attack of 99 passes and 103 rushes, Gilmer averages 308 yards in the air and 168 yards on the ground. Senior quarterback Kinne, has completed 66 of 91 passes, accounting for 1,182 yards and 17 touchdowns through the first four games. Senior receiver Curtis Bown has 596 combined rushing and passing yards, and 10 touchdowns on only 33 touches. Junior running back Justin Johnson has battled injuries, but leads the team with 239 rushing yards and three touchdowns on only 26 carries, while adding four receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns on the receiving end.
“You better be really good on offense to score on their defense. They’re really good on defense,” stated Traylor, whose team has averaged 3.44 points for every minute of possession time this season.
Scharnberg knows how to beat the Buckeyes. “We’ve got to stop the quick-strike. We’ve got to stop the kickoff return, the punt return and the quick pass-and-run. We’ve got to stop the easy touchdowns, and make them work for every yard that they get. That’s our whole game plan; we’ve got to do that.”
The Rabbits have struggled defensively, allowing an average of 36.4 points per game and over 364 yards of total offense in their first five games. Despite those numbers, Scharnberg is confident his defense will rise to the challenge Friday night. “We’re just going to try to take care of business and just play extremely hard.”

Directions to Rabbit Stadium
From Gilmer; take SH 155 North 39 miles to Linden. Turn left (north) on US Highway 59 for 13 miles to Atlanta , where US 59 becomes FM 249/W. Main St. for 1.1 miles. Turn left on N. Williams St./FM 251 for 1.4 miles. N. Williams St. will turn into Holly St. just before you turn right onto Rabbit Blvd. Stadium will be on the left.

Scout Team
Players of the Week
Offense: Hunter Harrison
Defense: Dustin Varnado

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With only 16 teams left in the Class 3A Division I playoffs, the Gilmer Buckeyes are just one of many teams with impressive résumés.

“They’re all good this time of the year,” stated Gilmer head coach Jeff Traylor, who has led his alma mater to a 108-17 record and one state championship in his 10 years at the helm of the Buckeyes.

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“We do have some experience and tradition,” admitted La Vega head coach Willie Williams, who has a 135-84-2 record in his 20th season as Pirates’ head coach.

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