The Valdosta Wildcats are back.
OK, they never really left. After all, they had had three 11-win seasons, 14 playoff appearances and 15 winning seasons since their last state championship in 1998. But those 17 years without a title marked the school’s longest such stretch in the GHSA era.
The drought ended when top-ranked Valdosta beat No. 4 Tucker 17-7 Friday in the Class AAAAAA final at the Georgia Dome for its 24th state championship, by far the most of any Georgia team. Quarterback Josh Belton threw touchdown passes to Damarrias Morrow and J.R. Ingram on the Wildcats’ first two possessions, and the Wildcats held on from there.
Valdosta and Tucker were two of the teams that dropped into Class AAAAAA when the GHSA added a seventh classification and limited the highest class to 48 members, down from 64 the year before. Valdosta played in a classification other than the largest for the first time since 1957, when it won its seventh state championship.
Tucker made its fourth championship-game appearance in nine years. The Tigers are 2-2 in the finals in that stretch.
Here are some of the other top stories from Class AAAAAA this year.
*Stepping down: Four of the eight region championships were won by teams that played in the highest classification last season. State finalists Valdosta and Tucker won Regions 1 and 4, respectively. Johns Creek (Region 7) earned the first title in the school’s eight-year history. Dacula won the Region 8 title, a year after going 5-5 and missing the playoffs in the highest classification.
*Reversal of fortune: Houston County quarterback Jake Fromm was on pace to break most of the state’s passing records, but his assault on the record book was cut short prematurely when the Bears failed to make the playoffs. It was a stunning turn of events for Houston County, which spent seven weeks ranked No. 1 and was 6-0 going into region play but went 1-3 and finished fifth in five-team Region 1. Fromm passed for 3,910 yards in the regular season, and his 391-yard average was the best in state history.
*Hoya revival: Harrison was a state power in the highest classification in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the Hoyas had not made the playoffs since 2010 or had a winning record since 2008. Their move out of the highest class and the rebuilding job done by fourth-year coach Matt Dickmann paid off this season. The Hoyas, led by Region 6 offensive player of the year Justin Fields (committed to Penn State), were second in the region behind undefeated Dalton and reached the second round of the playoffs before losing to Tucker 23-7 and finishing 10-2. It was the Hoyas’ first 10-win season since 2002.
*Things are looking up: Bradwell Institute entered the season on a 20-game losing streak, but the Tigers went 3-5-1 during the regular season and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Douglas County finished in fifth place in tough Region 5, but its six victories were the most for the school since 2007. Pope went 0-10 in 2015 and lost its first four games this season before winning three of its final six to finish 3-7. Habersham Central finished 5-5 and just missed a playoff berth in Region 8. The Raiders were 3-37 over the previous four seasons.
*Taking a step back: Defending state champion Allatoona fell off the radar after starting the season 0-3, but the Buccaneers recovered in time to take third place in Region 6 and reached the second round of the playoffs. Allatoona finished 6-6. Jonesboro, which went 11-2 in 2015, started the season 0-6 (although one loss was overturned by forfeit). The Cardinals managed to take fourth place in Region 4 but finished the year 4-7. Creekside’s 5-5 record tied for its worst in 21 years, and the Seminoles missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011.