LIVE OAK, Fla. — Suwannee High was close to so much more.
The Bulldogs earned their second straight playoff berth in 2019, finishing 5-6 with a first round playoff loss.
But SHS was a play here or a play there from possibly a few more wins and maybe even a deep playoff run.
That consistency is what Suwannee coach Kyler Hall wants to see moving forward.
“Our expectations, we just didn’t meet,” Hall said. “A few plays here or there, it’s a different picture. You can go back and over the course of the season and can pinpoint 10-15 plays that really changed the outcome.
“Making it back to the playoffs was good…but now we want to build off that and play deep into the playoffs and compete for championships.”
While the Bulldogs only had two losses as close as two scores — a 35-21 setback to Baker County and a 28-18 loss at Wakulla — they were in basically every game into the second half.
Suwannee trailed Class 1A champion Madison County by just six points until a defensive score in the third quarter led to the Cowboys pulling away.
The Bulldogs led Baker County late in the third and trailed Rickards by just one score at halftime.
Against the War Eagles, SHS led until the end of the third quarter and Wakulla then surged ahead in the fourth.
Even the loss to close out the regular season at Dublin (Ga.) where the Fighting Irish rushed for more than 700 yards and racked up 77 points was a two-score game in the fourth quarter.
A week later, Wakulla turned a one-score halftime lead into a lopsided season-ending loss for Suwannee.
“That was the frustrating part of it,” Hall added as Wakulla fell 21-20 in a state semifinal and Godby, who Suwannee beat 39-36, lost to the War Eagles in the regional final. “We let some things get away from us and didn’t finish like we should have.
“I think that shows where we are right now as a team, as a program. We’ve proven we can compete with anybody. Now, it’s time to just take that next step.”
To find that ability to finish off games and make the key plays, Suwannee will have some big holes to fill up front offensively. Led by 6-foot-7, 335-pound Georgia commit Josh Braun, the Bulldogs lose four starters off their offensive line including Emyrick Blue, Reagan Berry and Tate Van etta.
Dawson Chitwood will be counted on to lead the Bulldogs’ offensive front next year and will be joined by Bisbee Tompkins and Brian Robinson, who both saw significant action in 2019.
They will be surrounded by plenty of familiar faces.
“That is the biggest loss there and that’s where it starts,” Hall said.
Tyree Taylor, a three-year starter at quarterback, and DeMarius Thompson are the only two significant skill position players that SHS will have to replace. Taylor totaled 1,401 yards of offense with 18 touchdowns — 11 rushing, while Thompson added 554 yards and five scores rushing despite missing two games with injury.
Ty Wehringer and Jaquez Moore both have received snaps at quarterback with Wehringer guiding the SHS attack for most of the Godby win. Moore, who led SHS with 745 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing while also catching a team-high 17 passes for 307 yards and three TDs, has played quarterback in addition to running back and wide receiver each of the past three seasons.
Suwannee also returns its top five receivers including Moore. Also back will be Wesley Jones, Keiwan Ladler, Terrell Atkinson and Hunter Corbin.
“This is probably the most skill we’ve returned in one year, guys have started and made a lot of plays,” Hall said.
Likewise, there are a lot of Bulldogs returning defensively as well led by defensive backs Keiwan Ladler, Jones and Travis McKinney as well as linebackers Blaine Howard, Andrew Brown and Nyalen Seymour, who missed most of the year with an injury. Up front, SHS brings back Keshawn Jones, Antonio McKinney and Garris Reed. Suwannee, hindered by youth and injuries that saw players filling new roles, struggled at times on that side of the ball, particularly against the run.
“That group went through some bumps this year,” Hall said. “But I’m excited for that group coming back.”
That improvement is already under way with the Bulldogs focused on the weight room and making strides for 2020.
“It’s already started, the preparation for next year,” Hall said. “It’ll be spring ball before we know it and there’s a lot of work to do before that.
“The weight room will have a lot to do with that progression in the offseason, put some weight on some guys, getting stronger.”