After his team lost to Greater Atlanta Christian in the first round of the high school football playoffs, Pace Academy coach Chris Slade had some ominous words for the rest of the Class AAA playoff field. Cedar Grove, Slade said, was playing the best football in the state.
And No. 1-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian is no slouch, either.
The 2016 football season will come to a close this weekend after two days of games at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, and those two metro Atlanta teams have survived the gauntlet to get the AAA state title game.
The journey each team has taken in the playoffs could help determine their fate in the championship game:
Cedar Grove (12-2)
The Saints most recent loss was to Westminster on Sept. 23, when the Wildcats prevailed 42-21. Cedar Grove responded by shutting out its next four opponents and outscoring the next nine opponents, 436-48. That’s championship-caliber.
In the first round of the playoffs, Cedar Grove defeated Union County, 63-17. Jelani Woods was 9-of-9 passing for 123 yards. Grant Walker rushed for 178 yards. It is interesting to note that the game was played of Nov. 12, and Union County’s first-quarter field goal provided the first points scored on Cedar Grove’s first team defense since the Westminster game.
In Round 2, Cedar Grove defeated Jenkins of Savannah, 28-3. Jenkins led 3-0 at the half, but Cedar Grove took control in the second half with 267 of its 354 rushing yards. Grant Walker led the way with 205 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns. Oklahoma State commitment Jelani Woods also added a rushing touchdown. Demetrius Tharpe added the final touchdown on a 16-yard run.
In the quarterfinals, the Saints traveled to Calhoun to face the highly ranked Yellow Jackets.
“They are a really, really talented football team,” Lamb said a few days before the game. “A lot of size, a lot of speed. They’ve got the total package. So we are really concerned, obviously. It is going to be a battle. It’s going to be a challenge for our guys, but so far so good. We have a good start, and we will continue to get better throughout the week and put a product out there Friday and see what happens.”
Lamb didn’t like what happened: Cedar Grove 47, Calhoun 21.
In the semifinals, Cedar Grove demolished a 13-0 Crisp County team, 55-0. The Saints jumped to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter after taking advantage of several miscues from Crisp, then rolled. If the Saints were looking for momentum, heading in the finals, they got it.
Greater Atlanta Christian (13-1)
The Spartans have only one loss on the season, a 21-17 defeat to Valor Christian from the Denver area. Davis Mills made his return an injury suffered before the start of the season. Since then the Spartans rarely have been challenged.
In the first round of the playoffs, GAC defeated Pace Academy 35-17. Mills led the way, passing for 276 yards and two touchdowns. Kyler McMichael rushed for 186 yards.
In Round 2, GAC faced the strong running game of Worth County. The Spartans took care of business, winning 34-21. Mills completed 24 of 27 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns to Trent Fowler and Jeffery Blake. He also rushed for a score. Place-kicker Brooks Buce kicked field goals of 52 and 47 yards.
In the quarterfinals, GAC traveled to Hinesville, near Savannah, to face a dynamic Liberty County program. The Spartans were put to the test by the Panthers, but came away with the 44-38 victory in triple overtime.
“I guess you can sum it up in two words — quarterback and receiver,” said Liberty Coach Kirk Warner after the game. “They’re pretty good. They have some of the best route-running receivers we have faced all year. And Mills, he is not the No. 1 player in the state for nothing. He can make all the throws. Better guard them tight. And McMichael did a pretty good job, too. He hurt us on a long kick return when we thought we had momentum. He ran it down about 70 yards and set them up at about the 20-yard line. They’re just good, man. They’re just well-rounded, well-coached, disciplined football team.”
GAC then traveled south again to face a No. 2 Peach County team in Fort Valley. GAC won, 13-7. The Spartans controlled the pace of the game, which was detrimental to the flow of the Peach County offense. But the Trojans did hold Mills to his lowest offensive totals of his career and the Spartans to their lowest scoring total since 2011.
“We struggled a little bit on offense tonight,” said Mills. “But our defense made up for it. That’s what championship teams do. They have an offense and a defense working a high levels, and we are just ready for next week.”
It’s next week. Game-time is 1 p.m. Friday at the Georgia Dome.