‘It’s a lot to be proud of’ A look back on the 2023 Bearcat football season

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, November 29, 2023

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The Bearcats football season came to an unfortunate end against Perry in the second round of playoffs. The 3-7 loss shocked the team, especially the senior class. The group had made it to at least the third round of playoffs each year in their high school careers.

It was a loss that Bearcats head coach Jeff Littleton said “doesn’t define” them.

“It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up,” Littleton said. “We’ve done a really good job of bouncing back.”

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The Bainbridge football team ended the 2023 season with a 9-3 record. It was the winningest record since the 2020 season; that team went 11-3 and finished the season one round away from the state championship.

The foundation of the Bearcats’ success this year was built on an offensive triple threat of senior quarterback Cam Sanders, senior running back Keenan Phillips, and senior wide receiver Antavious Murphy. The trio combined for 3438 scrimmage yards and 51 touchdowns. 

All other players combined for 945 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns.

“Our offense was built around being able to attack every part of the field,” Littleton said. “When you’re able to give the ball to Keenan or throw it out horizontally or vertically to Antavious, the defense has to cover the entire field. And in order to do that, you’ve got to have the person that catches the snap and makes the right decision to get it to either one of those. Then, if that breaks down, he’s able to do something as well.”

The most impressive showing of their offensive ability was in their matchup against Ware County. The Gators were undefeated and the No.1 ranked 5A team in the state at the time — but it meant nothing to a well-oiled Bainbridge team.

The Bearcats were 2-2 coming into the game and riding a wave of momentum from a dominant second half against Thomasville the week before. The team scored five touchdowns in the half, turning a 13-21 deficit into a 46-28 win. 

Littleton said it felt like they had to score “every time” they had the ball against Ware, and they almost accomplished that. The Bearcats scored on 5 of 6 offensive possessions and were forced to punt once. That punt pinned the Gators on the 1-yard line.

“Offensively, we executed almost flawlessly,” Littleton said. “It was a big win for us… it kind of propelled us into the [rest of the season].”


The game opened with a 1-yard touchdown rush from Murphy on the Bearcats’ first possession.


The Gators responded immediately with a 65-yard touchdown pass on their first set of downs. 


The tone of the game had been set, and the Bearcats had to play at a high level to compete with the 5A juggernaut. 

They started the next drive on their own 20-yard line and marched down the field to secure another Murphy TD. The college recruit caught a 6-yard pass to score his second touchdown of the game. 


Ware County tried to get their offense off the ground but were unable to make it work. The Bearcat defense forced them to punt. The Bearcats were stifled on the ensuing offensive drive and were also forced to punt. 

Senior kicker/punter Nicholas Tyre booted a high ball that took a Bainbridge bounce and started rolling toward the Ware endzone. The Bearcat special teams were able to track it and fall on the ball on the 1-yard line, putting the Gators in uncomfortable field position. The Bainbridge defense would force another punt.

The Bearcats received the ball and slashed into the Gator defense on the next possession. They worked their way into the Ware County red zone, and Murphy ran in his third touchdown of the game. The score would be the final piece of action in the first half.


Ware County opened the second half with the ball. In a possession that took almost half of the third quarter, the Gators scored a rushing touchdown.


The Bearcats received the Ware County kick and were forced to start the drive inside their own 20-yard line. They marched down the field methodically and, after a possession that took over half of the third quarter, capped the drive off with a diving catch from senior wide receiver Darius Mills in the back of the endzone.


The Gators drove down the field in the ensuing drive and scored another rushing touchdown. 


The Bearcats got the ball with 9 minutes to go and a seven-point lead. If they failed to score a touchdown on this drive, the Gators would get the ball back with plenty of time to tie the game up.

The drive started more favorably on the 31-yard line. In just two minutes, The Bearcats made their way to the Ware County red zone. Senior wide receiver, and twin brother of quarterback Cam Sanders, Corey “CJ” Sanders, caught the final touchdown of the game. 


Ware County got the ball back with five minutes to go. The Gators drove into Bearcat territory and made it to the 10-yard line. From there, Ware County had four attempts to score.

They ran their first play, unsuccessful. Second play, no luck. Third play, couldn’t make it happen. If the Gators wanted to mount any kind of comeback, they would have to convert the 4th down.

On the fourth play, Ware quarterback Luke Hooks took the snap and started rolling to his right, trying to locate an open receiver in the endzone. Hooks roll-out offered him time and space to make a throw, but junior linebacker Braylon Phillips would close that space in quick time. 

Hooks found a pass he was happy with making, and as he started to throw the ball, Phillips speared him from the side. The tackle disrupted Hook’s throwing motion, and the ball left his hand inaccurately. The pass went incomplete, and the Bearcats took possession of the ball. 

Bainbridge ran out the clock on the ensuing possession.


The Ware win served as an inflection point in the season. The Bearcats faced one of the toughest teams they faced all year and displayed a level of execution and consistency that they would continue through the regular season. They didn’t lose another game until the loss to Perry in the playoffs.

The high-flying offense was complimented by an equally aggressive defense. The Bearcats forced 18 turnovers in the 12-game season. 

Junior defensive back TaShun Carter led the team with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries — returning one interception and one fumble for touchdowns. Senior defensive back Jace Weaver and senior linebacker Anthony McKay also recorded two fumble recoveries throughout the season. McKay led the team with two forced fumbles.

Junior Linebacker Braylon Phillips and senior linebacker Javon Cox topped the team in tackles. Phillips led with 69 total tackles, and Cox was right behind with 67. 

“We had a lot of young starters,” Littleton said. “When you get 5 or 6 games under your belt… then you’re not a rookie. Playing against the region opponents made them better and better.”

The Bearcats started the season with a 55-3 win over Eagles Landing Christian Academy. 

They next traveled to Coffee High School, where they suffered a 14-23 defeat. 

After Coffee, they welcomed Thomas County Central to Centennial field and fell to the Yellow Jackets 14-45. The score looks one-sided, but the two teams were only two yards apart in total offense. Littleton attributes turnover trouble to the Bearcats’ difficulty in the game. The loss to TCC was their last loss of the regular season.

Thomasville High School was next, and the Bearcats got a much-needed, momentum-shifting 46-28 win. Senior running back Keenan Phillips had the best game of his season against the Bulldogs. Phillips finished the night with 202 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Then it was Ware, where the Bearcat offense played “almost flawlessly” to secure a 35-21 victory. Senior wide receiver Antavious Murphy had his best performance against the Gators, with 177 yards and three touchdowns on 13 receptions.

Brooks County came next for the Bearcats, and their 42-0 victory was the moment when Littleton said his defense caught their stride. The team recorded three turnovers, two of which came from senior linebacker Javon Cox. Cox snagged two interceptions  in the shutout and ran one of them back endzone to endzone for a score. The 100-yard interception return is the longest return possible in Georgia high school football.

The Bearcats started region play after the Brooks win. Bainbridge plays in Region 1, and its region opponents were not the strongest this year. Their four region opponents had a combined average regular season record of 4-6. Littleton told the players his expectations were for them to “dominate” each game.

They started region play with a 41-14 win against Westover High School.

The Bearcats then welcomed Shaw High School to Centennial Field for their homecoming game — and beat them 49-7.

After Shaw came Hardaway, where the Bearcats recorded their second shutout of the season with a 42-0 victory.

The Bearcats played Cairo High School at home to close the regular season and play for the region title. It was the 79th chapter of the storied rivalry, and Bainbridge got to put their name in the win column with a 56-6 win. The win made the series record Bainbridge 37 wins, Cairo 35 wins, and seven ties. Quarterback Cam Sanders had his best game of the season. He went 17 for 21 passing (81%) with 294 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown.

The Cairo win marked the end of the regular season. The Bearcats finished 8-2 and started preparing for playoffs.

Trinity Christian was their first-round opponent. The Bearcats handled the Lions 49-14 and advanced to the second round, where they would face Perry High School.

The Bearcats season came to an end against Perry. They fell 3-7 to the Panthers. Littleton said the two teams were evenly matched and that they just couldn’t execute where they needed to win.

“A lot of people say that’s a successful season, and it is, it’s a lot to be proud of,” Littleton said. “But there were times where we were able to win the game — probably put the game away, we weren’t able to do it. You know, that’s kind of tough to swallow.”

 Now that the 2023 season has come to a close, Littleton is already preparing for next season. 

“We don’t take any days off,” Littleton said. “The season started yesterday.”