BAXLEY, Ga. (WSAV) – Welcome to 15 Teams in 15 Days! This is WSAV’s annual high school football preview series where we do a deep dive on a new team for each of the first 15 days of August. This year, we will ask and answer four standard questions of each team, which are all listed below:

Why are you interesting?

The Appling County Pirates are interesting for two reasons: their deep playoff run in 2021 and the likelihood that they could do it again in 2022.

Appling County reeled off nine straight victories to open their 2021 campaign. However, their sole regular season loss was to region rival Pierce County, 20-0, in Blackshear for the region title.

That loss to Pierce is definitely a motivating factor for the Pirates this time around. Their summer work has been all about building roster talent, which head coach Jordan Mullis said was short at a couple of key positions in November after a rash of injuries.

“Our goal is to build as much depth as we can,” Mullis said. “We had some injuries last year that really hurt us going into the playoffs. I don’t think you can ever have too much. Kids have done a great job going five days a week all summer, we’re just trying to work on the little things instead of the big things.”

The Pirates went on to make it all the way to the state semifinals before falling to Cedar Grove, 27-6.

Appling County is now in Class 2A after spending a decade in Class 3A. Several of their old region-mates made the move down with them, including Pierce County. Even if the competition has changed a little bit, the mindset definitely has not.

“The approach has not changed,” said senior Dawson Griffis. “We still want to dominate every game and dominate every team.”

Who are your dudes?

Even though Appling County lost a lot of seniors, they have some blue-chip talent returning to the team.

Defensive end Darion Paulk leads the defense as one of the most prolific pass rushers in the entire state of Georgia in 2021. He racked up 11 sacks and seven hurries alongside his older brother Darris, who is now a freshman on UGA’s football team.

He plays running back too, but clearly has a favorite side of the ball.

“Our strengths are on defense, but the offense is getting there as we go,” Paulk said.

The leader on that offense is quarterback Dayson Griffis, who stepped into the starting job as a true freshman and performed capably, tossing 11 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions. Griffis also handles punting duties, clocking in with a 38.9 net average.

One thing that should really help the Pirates this year is the return of running back Jaylen Johnson, who we recently profiled in our Recruiting Spotlight series.

Johnson missed nearly all of 2021 with a back injury, but returned late in the season and put some impressive plays on tape. He says he feels 100 percent back to normal, which makes Mullis a very happy coach.

“He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he’s a zone slash runner, he’s got a lot of power because he’s 195 pounds,” Mullis said. “That’s a big high school back and can help in the special teams game. The beginning of my bad blood pressure was losing him for nine weeks.”

What’s up with your coach?

Jordan Mullis had big shoes to fill when he took over the head job in Baxley.

Mullis came in at the start of the 2021 season to replace Rick Tomberlin, who had been coach at nine different schools over his 37-year career.

Tomberlin won three state titles over the course of his time in the coaching business, but none of them were at Appling County. In fact, the Pirates have never won a state title in their 70-year history.

Mullis leaving everything he has on the field in pursuit of one mission: get the Pirates their first state banner.

“The things I live by: no sleep, missing meals, high blood pressure,” Mullis said jokingly. “It’s real simple. I think you’ve got to invest in your kids. I think you have to treat them like champions because they’re not champions until they are.”

“We’re big on trying to run this football program first class. I try to have really good players and hire really good coaches and let them coach and try to stay out of their way.”

He probably picked up a few things from Tomberlin too; Mullis was the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach under the legend in 2020. Prior to that, he was the assistant football coach at Wayne County.

When’s the big game?

One might reasonably expect us to choose Appling’s clash with main rival Pierce County at home on Sept. 30. There’s no doubt that will be an awesome game.

However, we’re gonna throw you a curveball and choose a different game: the season opener on Aug. 19 against 5A titans Ware County.

These two schools played every season from 1970 to 1993, but this will be the first time that they’re squaring off since then.

Ware lost star quarterback Thomas Castellanos to graduation and the UCF Knights, while standout running back Cartevious Norton is now at Iowa State.

However, the Gators have only had two losing seasons since 2000, so it can be assumed that they’re going to reload instead of rebuild.

This game will be a great chance to get an early look at two perennial title contenders.