High school football gets a last dance at the Dome

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

AJC File

This weekend will mark the end of the high school football season, but also the end of an era. The Georgia Dome will be a high school football venue for the final time.

The Dome’s last dance will feature eight championship games in two days, beginning at 10 a.m. each day and ending with 8 p.m. nightcaps.

The Dome has been home to the finals since 2008, but the stadium’s 25-year history with Georgia high school football dates to the building’s opening in 1992.

Until then, Georgia high school football rarely was played on such a big stage.

On Sept. 5, 1992, the Corky Kell Classic matchup between Brookwood and McEachern was the first regular-season football game played in the Dome. The Atlanta Falcons played their season opener there the next day.

“The Georgia Dome has without question elevated the status of high school football in Georgia,” said Dave Hunter, head coach of that 1992 Brookwood team and co-founder of the Corky Kell Classic. “The players have really looked forward to playing in a great facility, and every school that has played there says that their program has been enhanced because of ‘The Dome’ experience.”

In the 25 seasons, 167 Georgia high schools have participated in the Dome’s 290 high school football games, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association.

This weekend, Rome and Fellowship Christian will become the 168th and 169th high schools to play in the Dome. (See full list here.)

Here is a primer on the last Georgia Dome finals:

*What’s new: The eight championship games are the most ever. There were seven last season, five as recently as 2011 and four when Valdosta won its last state title in 1998.

*First-timers: Rome (AAAAA), Fellowship Christian (A private) and McIntosh County Academy (A public) are playing in their first state-championship games. Cedar Grove and Greater Atlanta Christian, the AAA finalists, have never won state titles. Rome, opened in 1992, has not won a state title in any sport.

*Favorites: The computer Maxwell Ratings, which correctly picked 15 of the 16 semifinals, peg Grayson (AAAAAA) and Macon County (A public) as the heaviest favorites, each by 14 points. Buford (AAAAA) and Valdosta (AAAAAA) are just two-point favorites. Maxwell’s other picks are Benedictine (eight points), Eagle’s Landing Christian (six), Greater Atlanta Christian (six) and Cartersville (six). All except Macon County were ranked No. 1 when the playoffs began.

*Top players: Seventeen of the state’s top 75 senior prospects, and 14 of the top 75 juniors, are in the finals, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. Those include the No. 1 senior (Greater Atlanta Christian quarterback Davis Mills) and the No. 1 junior (Cartersville quarterback Trevor Lawrence), not to mention the No. 1 sophomore (Grayson linebacker Owen Pappoe). Teams with the most top-75 seniors or juniors are Roswell (seven), Grayson (five), Buford and Cedar Grove (four each), Rome (three) and Tucker and GAC (two each).

*Pride of Roswell: State finalists Roswell (AAAAAAA) and Fellowship Christian (A private) are a mile apart.

*68 long years: Fitzgerald hasn’t won a state title since 1948 despite four state-finals appearances and 10 trips to the semifinals in the meantime.

*Hottest of hot: Cartersville stands one victory from becoming the 11th team to produce back-to-back 15-0 seasons and the 19th to sustain a 30-game winning streak.

*Size matters: Valdosta and Tucker, the AAAAAA finalists, dropped into the second-highest classification this season when the GHSA trimmed the highest class to 48 schools. Macon County and McIntosh County Academy, the Class A public finalists, were in AA last season but moved down to a more populous Class A.

*Moved up: Buford and Greater Atlanta Christian moved up in classification this season because of a new GHSA rule aimed at private schools and city schools that get a significant number of students from outside their counties. Most of the schools forced to play up – including Woodward Academy, Marist, Jefferson, Lovett and Westminster – prospered despite the penalty.

*Record: Macon County quarterback K’hari Lane is two touchdown passes from tying Hutson Mason’s 2009 single-season record of 54.

*Coaches trivia: Jeff Herron of Grayson can become the first head coach to win state titles at three schools. He has won at Oconee County and Camden County. He is one of 13 to have won with two schools. Bryan Lamar is the only coach among the 16 who is working at his alma mater. Rob Ridings of Thomson has won state titles as a defensive coordinator (1991 LaGrange) and an offensive coordinator (2002 Thomson) but never as a head coach. Roswell’s John Ford (1996 Brookwood) and Fitzgerald’s Jason Strickland (1991 Clinch County) can join a list of about 10 who have won GHSA state titles as head coaches and players.

*Gwinnett trifecta: Gwinnett County schools Grayson (AAAAAAA), Buford (AAAAA) and Greater Atlanta Christian (AAA) are ranked No. 1 entering their championship games. The last time a county claimed three champions was 1970, when Woodward Academy, Roswell and Lovett represented Fulton.

*The end: The Dome will be demolished in the next year. The GHSA expects to have the state finals in the new Mercedes Benz Stadium in 2017, though no deal has been made.

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