Every Thursday, Class AA blogger Adam Krohn will preview a game of the week (GOTW).
Hapeville Charter Hornets at Pace Academy Knights
When, where: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Riverview Sports Complex
Records, rankings: Hapeville Charter is 1-1 and No. 2 in Class AA; Pace Academy is 0-1 and No. 7 in AAA.
Last meeting: Pace Academy won 21-7 in 2016.
Maxwell’s projection: Hapeville Charter by 1
Hapeville Charter vs. Pace Academy is a city rivalry that doesn’t go back far, but for seniors who have spent their entire prep career at either school, it’s one they’re all too familiar with. The Hornets and Knights will meet for the fourth time in as many seasons, with the Knights leading the all-time series 3-0. But the may Hornets have a shot at beating Pace Academy this year. They’re fielding perhaps the best team in their brief seven-year history and are coming off a 2016 season of firsts, including a region title, double-digit-winning season and playoff win.
“This is nine years in the making,” said Winston Gordon, the only football coach the Hornets have ever had. “It’s been a process. We started this program with 16 players and now we have 85 with a middle school feeding it. We’ve got kids playing who have been with us since the sixth grade and we’ve been developing them and getting them to stay here with no facilities. It’s been a big payoff and now we’re executing on the field and putting out a product that gets the players ready for college.”
Thus far the Hornets are building off their historic 2016 season. Ranked No. 2 in AA, they’re loaded with D-I talent and return quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams and five AA preseason all-state selections: WR Rory Starkey, OL Ousman Traore, DL Kingsley Enagbare, DL/LB Caleb Kelley and DB Chris Smith. They also added Tyleek Collins, a transfer from Benedictine who rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns in the AA title game.
The Hornets have challenged themselves by opening with a tough non-region schedule of four highly-ranked teams, with Pace Academy — ranked No. 7 in AAA — the third of game on the schedule. In their season opener, they beat AA’s No. 3 Fitzgerald 25-22 in a rematch of last year’s semifinals that the Purple Hurricane won 42-21. Last week they traveled out of state to play Thompson, the AAAAAAA No. 3 team in Alabama, and led 17-0 at halftime before ultimately losing 21-20.
After Pace Academy, they’ll play A-Private’s No. 3 Wesleyan.
“We wanted to make sure we were built up to get on the path to the state championship,” Gordon said of the Hornets’ non-region schedule. “The way you do that is to make the non-conference schedule as difficult as you can. A team’s true measure is how it’s been tested. We want to be proven tested and ready for region play, firing on all cylinders. That’s why we drew up our schedule the way we did.”
Before the Hornets enter Region 6-AA play and even before they take on Wesleyan, they must face a Knights team that’s had their number. The Knights won 37-20, 17-16 and 21-7 from 2014-16, respectively.
Smith, a four-star recruit committed to Georgia, is one of the Hornets who’s been with the program for the entirety of the Hapeville-Pace rivalry.
“I want this win really bad,” Smith said. “We want to go out with a bang as seniors. We’ve been close before and felt like he had the better team at times, but with miscues and things like that we’re 0-3. But I think we can do it this year.”
In the 2015 game, a blocked extra point was the difference for Pace.
“We know what’s at stake,” Knights coach Chris Slade said. “We’ve beaten them three years in a row and its a good rivalry that’s taken shape. I’m sure they think we let them slide a couple years, so let’s line up and play on Friday.”
The Knights opened their season last week with a 21-14 loss to AAAA’s West Forsyth. They trailed 21-0 at halftime before making adjustments and shutting out the Wolverines in the second half, but couldn’t make up the deficit. They’re two seasons removed from their only state title, which came in Class AA, and lean on playmakers including pre-season AAA all-state selections Jamaree Salyer (OL) — Salyer’s also an AJC Super 11 selection — and Realus George (LB). Keashawn Perryman rushed for both Knights touchdowns against West Forsyth.
“They have terrific running backs and we’ll be looking for them out of the pro set,” Gordon said. ”
The Hornets run their offense out of the spread and utilize their many athletes in space.
“Hajj is the guy that makes that offense go,” Slade said. “He’s outstanding. He’s elusive and throws a good ball. He’s as good as we’ll see all year. I’ve watched him develop over the seasons and he’s a great kid. I respect him.”
If Maxwell’s projections favoriting the Hornets by only a point is any indication, this game should be close. Smith hopes the Hornets will be ready to shift the series’ momentum.
“We’ve always felt like we have the better team,” Smith said. “We just can’t make mistakes. We have to come out, be physical from the jump and hit them in the mouth. Then we have to capitalize.”
Follow the AJC’s Class AA coverage on Twitter.