State finalists Valdosta, Tucker back on top to start 2017

Atlanta, Ga. — Valdosta senior QB Josh Belton (4) waits to take the field with Wildcat teammates before the start of thier Class AAAAAA state title game against the Tucker Tigers at the Georgia Dome Friday, December 9, 2016. SPECIAL/Daniel Varnado

Valdosta ended an 18-year championship drought, the longest in the program’s storied history, when it won the Class AAAAAA football final last December at the Georgia Dome.

The Wildcats earned the title with a 17-7 victory over Tucker, which was trying to win its third championship in nine seasons.

Expect both to be factors again this season. The teams were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that was released on Sunday, although this time it was Tucker earning the top spot.

Here’s a look at the AJC top 10 heading into this weekend’s first games.

1. Tucker: The Tigers landed five players on the Georgia High School Football Daily preseason all-state team, three more than any other team. Those players are RB Taurean Taylor, WR Josh Vann and OL Dylan Wonnum on offense and DL Antonio Showers and LB Michael Harris on defense. Harris is a transfer from Lovejoy, bolstering a defense that allowed just 10.9 points per game in 2016.

2. Valdosta: The Wildcats return four starters on each side of the ball. Hunter Holt will take command of the offense after splitting time at QB last season with Josh Belton, who graduated. Both passed for more than 1,000 yards. Valdosta is seeking replacements for top RB Tevin Gray and top WR J.R. Ingram. LB Zakoby McClain and DB Jayce Rogers were preseason all-state picks.

3. Harrison: The Hoyas went 10-2 last season, their most wins since 2002 during the team’s glory days under the late Bruce Cobleigh, and expectations are off the charts for 2017. Much of the credit for that goes to Justin Fields, the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback. He threw for 2,278 yards and rushed for 851 in 2016. His top target is preseason all-state selection WR Steven Peterson.

4. Northside-Warner Robins: The Eagles return three starters on offense and five on defense. Perhaps the biggest loss was QB Tobias Oliver, who rushed for 1,581 yards, passed for 1,724 yards and had a hand in 38 touchdowns. Northside went 11-3, marking the 18th time in the last 19 seasons that they have won at least 10 games. Northside was the runner-up to Valdosta in Region 1.

5. Lee County: The Trojans lost one Super 11 player to graduation (DL Aubrey Solomon signed with Michigan) but have another this season, DB Otis Reese (committed to Michigan). Both were first-team all-state players in 2016. Reese is joined in the secondary by Kermit Solomon, Aubrey’s brother and a Mercer commitment. OL Griffin McDowell (Mississippi State) is a three-star recruit.

6. Dalton: Let’s not forget that it was Dalton, not Harrison, that won the Region 6 title last season. In fact, the Catamounts (13-1) had their best season since the 2001 team went 13-2 and reach the Class AAAA final. The Catamounts lost 18 starters from last year, but they return QB J.P. Tighe, who passed for 2,127 yards and 21 touchdowns. Junior PK/P Ivan Mora is an all-state caliber player.

7. Mays: Niketa Battle stepped in as interim coach last season after the firing of Corey Jarvis, and he led the Raiders to a spot in the state quarterfinals. Battle is back again this year, but he’ll be without QB B.J. Phillips, who passed for 2,087 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushed for 606 yards as a senior. Mays is 33-7 since the start of the 2014 season, the best three-year stretch in school history.

8. Coffee: The Trojans finished in fourth place in Region 1 last year but still managed to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2008. Coffee must replace QB Max Hughes (2,661 yards passing) and RB Demetrius Davis (1,067 yards rushing), who both finished second in the region in yardage during the regular season. Look for senior Wade Sumner to get the first shot at the quarterback spot.

9. Glynn Academy: Senior Randon Jernigan is expected to take over at QB after the graduation of Deejay Dallas (1,201 yards rushing, 911 passing). The Red Terrors also lost RB Kendall Cross (1,425 yards) and several players from the offensive and defensive lines, but they are strong at linebacker and in the secondary. Glynn reached at least the quarterfinals each of the past three years.

10. Alpharetta: The Raiders won a region title in 2014, Jacob Nichols’ first season as head coach. After falling back to 5-5 in 2015, Alpharetta rebounded with a 7-4 playoff season last year. The Raiders will be tested in non-region play, opening the season at Class AAAAAAA Milton before meeting Gainesville at home. DL Nick Markus and DB Jaycee Horn were preseason all-state picks.


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