Harrison was ranked No. 4 in Class AAAAAA and in firm control of Region 6 after a 28-26 victory over Dalton in a nationally televised game on Oct. 19.
But it was a costly victory. Quarterback Justin Fields, the nation’s top-rated senior prospect who had just recently committed to Georgia, was lost for the season with a broken finger on his throwing hand.
Fields wasn’t just the key to the Hoyas’ offense. He was likely the most important offensive player in Class AAAAAA. Despite missing the fourth quarter of the Dalton game as well as the two games since, Fields’ 958 rushing are still 652 yards more than the team’s second-leading rusher. He was 100-of-152 passing for 1,683 yards with only two interceptions. And he had run or passed for 36 touchdowns.
“I know he’s got a lot of great things ahead of him, but I sure would’ve liked to be able to coach him the rest of the year,” Harrison coach Matt Dickmann said after the Dalton game.
Harrison eventually won the region title, but it hasn’t been easy. The Hoyas clinched the title the following week with a 31-24 victory against fourth-place Sequoyah, then lost to fifth-place Creekview 21-19 last weekend.
Sophomore Gavin Hall has taken over at quarterback. He is 28-of-49 passing for 351 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions since taking over as the starter.
Harrison begins the playoffs at home Friday night, and it won’t be easy. The Hoyas take on Alexander, a strong No. 4 seed that was a one-point loss to Douglas County away from being the Region 5 runner-up to Mays. Alexander is ranked No. 20 in Class AAAAAA by the computer Maxwell Ratings (Harrison is No. 9).
How well the Hoyas are able to move on from Fields’ injury will be one of the top stories to watch in the playoffs. Here are five more:
*Toughest draw: Brunswick
Brunswick made the playoffs for the first time since 2014 (and the second time since 2010), but the task it has in front of it is a big one. The Pirates finished as the No. 2 seed out of Region 2-AAAAAA, so they will be at home in the first round. But their opponent is Northside-Warner Robins, the fifth-ranked team in the classification. Northside is 18-3 in first-round games during its current 22-year streak of reaching the playoffs. And the winner of that game most likely will travel to top-ranked Tucker for the second round.
*Best first-round matchup of regions: Region 1 vs. Region 2
The two smallest regions in Class AAAAAA, with five teams each, have put some strong teams in the playoffs, and they will square off against each other in the first round. The playoff teams from Region 1 (Lee County, Coffee, Northside-Warner Robins and Valdosta) and Region 2 (Glynn Academy, Brunswick, Effingham County and Richmond Hill) make up eight of the top 13 teams in the classification in the Maxwell Ratings, which also project that the home teams will win all four head-to-head matchups.
*Worst record in the field: Lakeside-Evans (2-8)
Lakeside-Evans started the season 0-5 in non-region play against five teams that had a combined record of 42-8 during the regular season. The Panthers opened play in Region 3-AAAAAA with victories against Greenbrier and Alcovy by a total of three points, which was enough to secure the No. 4 seed in the region, then lost lopsided games against the region’s other three playoff teams. The other teams in the field with losing records are Valdosta, Drew, Pope and Gainesville, all of which are 4-6 and fourth-seeded teams.
*Best teams sitting at home: Creekview and Northgate
Four AAAAAA teams had winning records but didn’t make the playoffs. The best among those were Creekview (6-4) and Northgate (6-4), both of which played in large regions with strong teams at the top. Creekview tied for fourth place in Region 6 but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with Sequoyah. Northgate tied for third in Region 5 but lost out on point-differential. Creekview is ranked No. 22 and Northgate is No. 24 in the Maxwell Ratings. Bradwell Institute and Greenbrier also went 6-4 but missed the playoffs.
*Best game that could come too early: Lee County vs. Mays
Every year, there are those games of semifinal or championship caliber that happen earlier in the bracket. Looking down the road this season, it could happen in the quarterfinals, where No. 3 Lee County and No. 2 Mays are on a collision course. Lee opens against Richmond Hill and would face the Lovejoy-Grovetown winner. Mays takes on Sequoyah and would meet the Lanier-Centennial winner. Lee County has never reached the semifinals, and Mays has made it just once. At least one won’t make it this year, either.
(R6 #3) Dalton at (R5 #2) Douglas Co.
(R8 #4) Gainesville at (R7 #1) Alpharetta
(R2 #3) Effingham Co. at (R1 #2) Coffee
(R4 #4) Drew at (R3 #1) Evans
(R5 #3) Hughes at (R6 #2) Allatoona
(R7 #4) Pope at (R8 #1) Dacula
(R1 #3) Northside, W.R. at (R2 #2) Brunswick
(R3 #4) Lakeside, Evans at (R4 #1) Tucker
(R8 #3) Lanier at (R7 #2) Centennial
(R6 #4) Sequoyah at (R5 #1) Mays
(R4 #3) Lovejoy at (R3 #2) Grovetown
(R2 #4) Richmond Hill at (R1 #1) Lee Co.
(R7 #3) Chattahoochee at (R8 #2) Winder-Barrow
(R5 #4) Alexander at (R6 #1) Harrison
(R3 #3) Heritage, Conyers at (R4 #2) Stephenson
(R1 #4) Valdosta at (R2 #1) Glynn Academy