Championship mini-preview: Rabun County vs. Hapeville Charter

(For the AA title game megapreview, go here.)

This blog post was supposed to be a recap of the Class AA football season. I was going to talk about all the great storylines that helped shape it. But the season didn’t end on Saturday, as scheduled. Instead, snow and potentially icy conditions forced the GHSA to make the incredibly tough decision to postpone six of the eight title games — including Rabun County vs. Hapeville Charter in AA — and move those games to a venue other than Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The new venue was to be the home of the highest-seeded team. In the case of the AA championship, both Rabun County and Hapeville Charter are No. 1 seeds, so a coin toss determined home field. Rabun County won the toss, and the AA title game will be played on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Tiger.

This is unfortunate for both teams in that they won’t have the opportunity to play in Atlanta’s shiny-new stadium and they will no longer play before a statewide televised audience.

It’s particularly unfortunate for Hapeville Charter, though. The Atlanta school goes from playing a few miles down the road to traveling 120 miles up the road to a small mountain town. This is the third consecutive coin toss the Hornets have lost in this year’s playoffs.

A convincing case can be made that no team in the state — regardless of classification — has a tougher road to a state championship than the Hornets. Since the second round ended, they’ve played every game on the road and that includes against Benedictine, the state’s top-ranked, defending state champions.

The Hornets technically don’t have a home anyway. With no stadium on campus, they split home games between Grady, Banneker and Lakewood Stadium. Instead of looking at it as playing all road games, Hornets coach Winston Gordon takes a glass-half-full approach.

“Every game is a home game for us,” Gordon said. “We make everywhere we go our home.”

For this week’s “home” game, Hapeville Charter has rented a total of four charter busses — including one to transport fans — plus a 30-seater for the cheerleading squad. It was an unforeseen cost that arose from Saturday’s cancellation.

“It’s a tremendous (financial) blow,” Gordon said. “A small school like us, it’s a financial impact. Every dime we’ve made in the playoffs has been spent trying to go (to Tiger).”

The 2.5-hour commute aside, it’s back to work for the Hornets. They’ll follow their same practice routine during the week before heading out to Tiger on Friday morning. They’ll do a walkthrough somewhere between Hapeville and Rabun County, with Buford is a possible as a destination.

Gordon said that any disappointment the Hornets had about being denied a chance to play at the Benz is behind them.

“We have a senior-led team,” said Gordon of the Hornets, who have 25 seniors. “You don’t have to say much to them to get them up for a game. We get another week together and I get another week to coach them so I’d be remiss not to say it’s a blessing in disguise for us to get one more week together.”

Rabun County coach Lee Shaw feels the same way about the extra week added to the season.

“We’re really excited to get another week, to be honest,” Shaw said. “We didn’t want it to end and what a great Christmas present this is. We’re just living the dream up here.”

The other present, of course, is winning the coin toss.

“It’s what every kid would want as far as playing in front of the home crowd,” Shaw said. “This is awesome for the community.”

The Wildcats have been in Hapeville’s position when it comes to travel. Shaw noted that competing in Region 8 means playing league opponents that are two-plus hours away. The Wildcats’ closest opponent is Elbert County, which is 1.5 hours away. Putnam County, Social Circle and Monticello are all more than two hours away. In the quarterfinals, they played 4.5 hours from home against Screven County.

In fact, the first of two team buses for Rabun County had made the commute to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and was about to unload and watch the Peach County-Calhoun game when Shaw was notified the game was cancelled.

They turned the bus around and headed back to Tiger in hopes of beating any potential weather hazards.

“I think the first minute was an initial shock,” Shaw said. “But we know the event is bigger than the venue and we’re still excited to have an opportunity to play for a state title, and we’re excited to play at home.”

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