Final journey to Georgia Dome is under way

The Corky Kell Classic returns to the Georgia Dome in 2015. (AJC File)

(AJC file)

For the 60th time, the Georgia High School Association is putting on the state football playoffs.

For the first time, Ola High School of Henry County will be a part of it. The 11-year-old school achieved its first winning season and playoff berth this fall with a 6-4 finish in one of the state’s toughest regions, 4-AAAAA.

“It means a lot not only to our current players, coaches and parents but also to all those who came before us for the past 11 years,” said Jared Zito, in his third season as head coach. “This changes Ola football forever and raises the bar for all those to follow.”

Ola, which will play at Ware County tonight in its first trip to South Georgia, is one of 14 Georgia schools making the playoffs for the first time.

Here’s more on that and other stories of the first round:

*Newcomers: The oldest of the first-time teams is Miller Grove, which opened in DeKalb County in 2005 and won eight basketball state titles before getting its first playoff football game. Other teams making their first GHSA playoff appearances are Arabia Mountain (opened 2009), Cambridge (2012), Grovetown (2009), Hapeville Charter (2011), Hebron Christian (2007), Heritage of Ringgold (2008), Islands (2014), Mount Vernon Presbyterian (joined GHSA in 2012), Mountain View (2009), New Hampstead (2014), North Murray (2009) and Walnut Grove (2009).

*Thanks, but no thanks: KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, a charter school that began football in 2013, qualified for the playoffs for the first time but on Wednesday forfeited its game against Banks County. School officials made the decision in the wake of a fight involving players after KIPP’s game last week against Hapeville Charter. This marks the first voluntary forfeit in GHSA playoff history, which dates to 1947.

*Regulars: Thirty teams are making the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season or better. They are led by Lincoln County, which last missed in 1973. Other schools with streaks of 20 or more seasons are Marist (34), Peach County (26), Northside of Warner Robins (25), Eagle’s Landing Christian (21), East Coweta (20) and Commerce (20).

*Notably absent: Charlton County’s streak of 26 playoff appearances is over. Camden County, ranked No. 6 in preseason, failed to make it. So did Houston County, which spent seven weeks at No. 1 in Class AAAAAA but lost three of its last four games.

*Getting an early start: The state playoffs got under way Thursday night, when West Hall upset Troup 24-21 in a Class AAAA game. It was the first playoff victory since 2000 for West Hall, which was projected as a 20-point underdog by the Maxwell Ratings. The Spartans will meet Americus-Sumter or Thomson next week.

*Teams to beat: Ranked No. 1 entering the playoffs are Grayson (AAAAAAA), Valdosta (AAAAAA), Buford (AAAAA), Cartersville (AAAA), Greater Atlanta Christian (AAA), Benedictine (AA), Clinch County (A public) and Eagle’s Landing Christian (A private).

*Players to watch: Nine of the state’s top 10 senior recruits are suiting up, three that play for No. 1-ranked teams – Jamyest Williams and DeAngelo Gibbs of Grayson and Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian. Others are Richard LeCounte of Liberty County, Aubrey Solomon of Lee County, A.J. Terrell of Westlake, Andrew Thomas of Pace Academy, Xavier McKinney of Roswell and Netori Johnson of Cedar Grove. Missing is quarterback Jake Fromm of Houston County.

*Record chasers: Two single-season passing records held by former Lassiter and Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason are under siege. Griffin’s Tylan Mortan has thrown for 3,610 yards, 950 short of Mason’s record. Macon County’s K’hari Lane has thrown 45 touchdown passes, nine short of Mason’s record.

*Best first-round matchup: Marist and Sandy Creek have averaged more than 10 wins per year for a decade or longer, and each was ranked in the top five of AAAA in preseason. Both are 7-3, and fate has paired them at Marist, where the home team is 34-2 in playoff games over the past 20 years. But Sandy Creek has won nine straight first-round games.

*Another to watch: Pace Academy, which won its first state title in football last season, struggled to a 6-4 finish this season. The team’s position in the playoffs was held up because of a fight in last week’s game against Towers. The GHSA declared Pace the winner on Monday, but four ejected players must sit out the first-round game against No. 1-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian.

*Where it’s headed: The playoffs will churn for five rounds and conclude with a last dance Dec. 9-10 at the Georgia Dome. The GHSA hopes to be playing in the Falcons’ new Mercedes Benz Stadium in 2017.

READ MORE

First-round matchups in the playoffs. Where is your team?

Top 10 games in round one: Previews and notes

Get AJC high school football  scores and updates as the games are played

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