Semifinals previews

For four Class AA teams, a trip to the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is just a win away. On Friday, the No. 9 Heard County Braves will host the No. 2 Hapeville Charter Hornets, and the No. 5 Rabun County Wildcats will host the No. 7 Brooks County Trojans in the semifinals round.

Here are GHSF Daily’s AA semifinals capsules:

Hapeville Charter at Heard County
When, where: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Staples Stadium, Franklin
Records, rankings: Hapeville Charter is 12-1, the No. 1 seed from Region 6-AA and No. 2; Heard County is 12-1, the No. 1 seed from 5-AA and No. 8.
Last meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting.
Things to know: Hapeville Charter lost to Fitzgerald 42-21 last year in its first trip to the semifinals. The Hornets made it back this year by beating Benedictine 31-17 last week, ending the Cadets’ 27-game winning streak. Hapeville DB Chris Smith (committed to Georgia) and Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina) lead a defense that has allowed just 6.8 points per game this season and 9.0 in the playoffs. Enagbare was the defensive player of the year in 6-AA, and Smith was joined on the first-team defense by DL Caleb Kelley, LB Zyon Bagley and DB Malik Fleming. Key offensive players include QB Hajj-Malik Williams (2,239 yards passing), RB Harper Atkins Jr. (560 rushing) and WR Kivante’ Johnson (795 receiving). Heard County is in the semifinals for the first time in a history that dates to 1971. QB Emory Jones (committed to Ohio State) is the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 247Sports Composite ratings. He threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to three-star recruit Jaden Moreland and ran for two scores in a 28-14 victory over Thomasville last week. The Braves’ only loss this season was a 17-14 setback on Aug. 26 against Saraland, a Class 6A school from Alabama.
Maxwell Ratings’ projection: Hapeville Charter by 17
Brooks County at Rabun County
When, where: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Frank Snyder Stadium, Tiger
Records, rankings: Brooks County is 11-1, the No. 2 seed from Region 1-AA and No. 6; Rabun County is 13-0, the No. 1 seed from 8-AA and No. 5.
Last meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting.
Things to know: Brooks County is 0-4 in semifinal games since winning a state championship in 1994. Rabun County is in the semifinals for the first time in school history. Brooks County averages 211 yards rushing (119.8 passing) for the season but has run for 627 yards in the past two games. Jonathan White has run for 1,155 yards and 16 touchdowns on 130 carries this season. QB Mac Perry has passed for 1,227 yards and run for 446, including a team-high 127 in a 31-0 victory over Callaway last week. Rabun County averages 228.2 yards passing and 182.5 passing and relies heavily on QB Bailey Fisher, who is 180-of-250 passing for 2,911 yards and 39 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He also leads the team in rushing with 1,119 yards and 25 TDs on 170 carries. Fisher passed for 241 yards, ran for 148 and had a hand in seven touchdowns in a 56-14 victory over Screven County last week. His top targets are Cole Keener (49 receptions, 975 yards, 13 TDs) and Braxton Hicks (36-706-11). This game matches two of the top defenses in AA. Brooks County is giving up 8.8 points per game, while Rabun County is allowing 9.6.
Maxwell Ratings’ projection: Rabun County by 17

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We’ll start with the obvious: this is an impressive Final Four. Between them, there’s only one loss to a Peach State school, and that’s a win Brooks County let slip away against Thomasville in which the Trojans led 20-0 at halftime.

Rabun County is undefeated and both Hapeville Charter and Heard County lost to Alabama schools. The Hornets lost their second game, 21-20, to a Thompson team that entered the playoffs undefeated and ranked No. 2 in Alabama’s highest classification before losing to Hoover in the semifinals. The Braves lost to Saraland, a team in the state’s second-highest classification that reached the second round of the playoffs.

As for the Hornets, they just can’t get no respect! Not only did I pick them to lose to Benedictine in the quarterfinals, but when they won I incorrectly noted that it was their first-ever trip to the semifinals in the Friday night recap. They reached the semifinals last season, so that was a bad oversight on my end.

(For game day details from Franklin, see the Heard Citizen‘s capsule.)

The GHSA’s universal coin-flip again went against the Hornets, but that’s about the only thing going wrong for them right now. The toss came up “heads” meaning the top team in the bracket hosts, which is Heard County. The week prior, the toss came up “tails” which left the Hornets to travel 248 miles to Savannah. They seemed to enjoy themselves down there though, given their lopsided win.

This week’s game will be much closer to home, as Heard County is just 50 miles from Hapeville Charter. Emory Jones will be the best quarterback the Hornets’ defense have faced this season, but Jones presents a challenge they’ve seen before. In their season opener, they were able to fend off Fitzgerald 25-22. That Purple Hurricane team featured James Graham, a dual-threat quarterback with a similar skill set. Those 22 points ended up being the most the Hornets have given up all season.

While the Jones and the Braves are playing at a high level, it would seem the Hornets are deep enough on defense to limit any damage Heard County will try to impose. And on offense, Hajj Malik-Williams has been just as effective as Jones.

Maxwell Projections have the Hornets winning by three scores and after beating Benedictine by two touchdowns, it’s not hard to see them living up to that projection.

Coincidentally, Rabun County is also projected by Maxwell to win by 17 over Brooks County. Given how the Wildcats have played all season, I’m surprised the projection didn’t come out even more lopsided in their favor. I mentioned on Tuesday how taken aback I was by how the Wildcats beat No. 3 Screven County the same as it has all of its other opponents: in lopsided fashion.

(For more on the Trojans-Wildcats matchup, see accessWDUN‘s preview by Morgan Lee.)

Looking at their body of work all season, you start to move past questioning the level of competition they’ve faced to coming to what should have been an obvious conclusion: Rabun County is really, really good! As GHSF Daily has noted, the Wildcats have the No. 2 defense in AA in terms of points allowed. You combine that with an offense that’s one of the highest scoring in AA and that’s a lot to handle.

AJC Player of the Year finalist Bailey Fisher is a prime example of the high level of play Lee Shaw-coached teams consistently produce. He’s a scoring a lot on both the ground and through the air and there’s no reason that shouldn’t continue this week.

What makes this matchup so intriguing — aside from that all semifinals games are intriguing — the fork in the road that these two teams are on. The Wildcats are up-and-comers who have steadily improved each year since Shaw took over, whereas the Trojans are a fixture in the playoffs that are just looking to get past the semifinals hump.

If Brooks County’s offense can stay on the field and maybe even jump to an early lead, it has a chance to pull off an upset nearly 300 miles from home. And while I envision this game being closer than the projection, Rabun County proved that notion wrong last week and should advance to its first state title game in program history.

I’ll see you on Saturday morning after these games are in the books.

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Football player stretching


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