Saunders came from Pebblebrook and Cross Keys before that. He is a championship-winning coach during his time in Virginia, but he came down to Georgia for family and took the Brook to three straight playoff berths -- something that hadn’t been done in the 15 seasons previous to his arrival. Now, he’s in the north Georgia mountains and doing it all over again.
“I like challenges and I like it when someone tells me that you can’t win,” he admits. “I like building programs and it’s a process. Taking kids and having them do something they haven’t done. It gives them confidence and changes them and I want to make sure they have a positive education in the classroom and on the field. It goes hand in hand. The kids have to learn that life’s not easy, but you can overcome those kinds of things. And you get to overcome them when you do the right things.
“It’s something completely different than what they’ve been doing the last three years and it’s a process they have got to get used to. They’re now coming to practice having won a game. How are they going to react to that? Everything they do is all learning.”
Wes Tankersley, the current head coach at Stephens County, had a run of success from 2008-2014 with the Bobcats that included the nerve-wracking evening of the mini-game play-in to get into the playoffs one season. For Saunders, it’s about bringing that belief back into a system that had it and he is the first to tell you the support in the community is there.
“It’s fun. I love doing it,” he says. “It keeps me where I’m at. There’s no monotony with my job. You have issues you have to deal with and change kids to understand the importance that we have a chance of winning. I tell them that you have to buy in to the team concept and do your job, not someone else’s.
“Now, it’s how we handle the adversity that’s in front of us. When something bad happens and they’re used to it, you have to help them change that. You teach them how to change that. I’ve been with teams and when you can turn bad things around as a team in a game, you’re team is the one that’s winning games.”
Gilmer will look to do that this season in Region 6-AAAA where Pickens ran the table last year and the Dragons had a season unlike any other. There is one other benefit of this season. Saunders gets to coach his stepson and they got to share in something special for everyone in Ellijay the other night.
“That was another good thing about coming here,” Saunders says. “He did really well the other night. He’s a junior and he threw for three touchdowns in the game and rushed for another one. He’s getting better and it’s new to him, too, in a new program. He’s excited and the whole place was crazy. It was fun for them and I just sat back and watched.”
Next up, two road games before region play with Gordon Central and Lumpkin County and the chance to move forward with a win in your pocket.
“I know it feels incredible for the kids. It’s been a long time for them. That’s the main thing. I think we’re a year ahead of where we should be. We’re young … we’re REALLY young. It was big for our kids and community.”
It’s a night the Bobcat family will remember for a long time, as they should.
Play it safe, everyone… I’ll talk to you soon…