At least two Georgia high schools will win their first state championships in football this weekend, and three others are in position for the same as the season reaches the goal line with eight state finals today and Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Class AAAAAA final tonight between region rivals Coffee and Lee County guarantees a first-time winner. Lee County began varsity football in 1971. Football was played for decades in Coffee County before Coffee High opened in 1970, but there’s never been a state champion from either county.
Saturday’s AA final also matches two teams seeking their first titles. Rabun County started football in 1949. Hapeville Charter began in 2011. Rabun would be the first from the northeast Georgia mountains to win since Stephens County in 1958. Hapeville would be the first charter school to win a title.
Other potential first-time champions and their first season of varsity football are North Gwinnett (1961), Blessed Trinity (2001) and Athens Academy (1977).
Here are more facts, figures and tidbits about the finals.
*New dome, new home: These will be the first championships played at the Falcons’ new stadium. They had been at the Georgia Dome since 2008. The finals won’t be the first high school games in the new stadium, though. Three involving mostly Atlanta city schools were played there Oct. 21.
*Semifinals in review: Hapeville beat Heard County 28-21 on Marcus Carroll’s tie-breaking touchdown run with 5.3 seconds left. Clinch County blocked a field goal in the final seconds of its 23-20 win over Mount Zion. Otherwise, last week’s final-four games were not overly suspenseful, but some were notable. Rome beat Buford 45-7, ending Buford’s 10-year run of making the finals. Calhoun beat defending AAA champion Cedar Grove 14-6, meaning only two 2016 winners remain – Rome (AAAAA) and Eagle’s Landing Christian (A private).
*Low metro turnout: Only five of the 16 state finalists are from metro Atlanta – Marist, Blessed Trinity, Hapeville, North Gwinnett and Eagle’s Landing Christian. That’s the first time it has been less than a third of the teams since 2009, when only Buford and Sandy Creek were among 10 finalists. From 2010 to 2016, nearly half – 45 of 92 – had been metro teams. In the previous century, a low metro turnout wasn’t unusual. In 1999, no metro teams made the finals.
*Near worst is near first: Warner Robins is the 28th team out of 648 state finalists in state history to reach a championship game immediately after a losing season. The Demons, 3-8 in 2016, will play Rome for the AAAAA championship today. Only six teams have won state titles after a losing season. The last to do it was Chattahoochee in 2010.
*Catholic Bowl: The AAAA final between Marist and Blessed Trinity marks the first time that two Catholic schools have played each other for a football state championship in Georgia. Marist (1989, 2003) is among five Catholic schools that have won state titles in football. It would be Blessed Trinity’s first.
*Winding road to Atlanta: Colquitt County of AAAAAAA is the 11th team in Georgia history to reach the state finals by winning the first four rounds of the playoffs away from home. Colquitt has won at Pebblebrook, Walton, Archer and Brookwood. Colquitt also was the first school to do it, in 1991. The last to win a state title after such a march were Westminster and Pace Academy in 2015.
*Best players: Most of the state’s most highly recruited players are finished, and the state player-of-the-year award is there for the taking. The only four-star or higher prospects still playing are Rome defensive end Adam Anderson, Colquitt County linebacker J.J. Peterson, Lee County safety Otis Reese, Peach County wide receiver Kearis Jackson, North Gwinnett offensive lineman Warren Ericson, Hapeville Charter cornerback Chris Smith and Marist tight end/defensive end John FitzPatrick. Jackson is doubtful because of a wrist injury.
*Credit to coaches: Lee Shaw of Rabun County and Robby Pruitt of Coffee are the most recent of 31 Georgia head coaches who have led two schools to state-championship games. Shaw led Flowery Branch to a final in 2008, while Pruitt led Fitzgerald to a final in 2000. Tim McFarlin of AAAA finalist Blessed Trinity also is in the club, though he joined with the Titans’ first trip to the finals in 2015. McFarlin had taken Roswell to the finals in 2006. Only 14 have won state titles with two schools. McFarlin could join that group with a win.
*All-region finals: Three state finals – Coffee vs. Lee County (1-AAAAA), Blessed Trinity vs. Marist (7-AAAA) and Clinch County vs. Irwin County (2-A) – are between teams from the same region. This has happened 15 previous times since 1990, when the GHSA expanded the playoffs beyond just region champions and made such meetings possible. The region champion or No. 1 seed is 11-4 in those games.
*How to watch: Single-day tickets are $22 and available only at the stadium or participating schools. The games will be shown live on Georgia Public Broadcasting and streamed on the NFHS Network and GPB.org.
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