UGA Recruiting: GHSF Daily – Top 10 Storylines of the 2018 Season
It’s not over yet, but the sun is setting on the Georgia high school football season. With the state finals four days away, here are our choices for the 10 most intriguing and impactful stories of the 2018 season.
10. Drama in the high class: Two of the most fascinating teams this season were Grayson and Marietta, each with a distinct, but similar, story. (In other words, we had a tie for 10th, and this is how we settled it.) Grayson and Marietta were fraught with major Division I talent, and each had preseason top-25 national rankings. But each also had preseason drama. Marietta was forced to forfeit its eight 2017 victories because of ineligible players who were then forced to sit out the 2018 season. The players appealed to the GHSA, and lost, stirring debate about transfer eligibility and whether student-athletes should be accountable for poor counsel or administrative errors from their schools. Grayson, meanwhile, had a players walkout during a practice that was deemed too harsh. That made national news. But things were smoothed over, and Grayson looked awfully good in its season opener, a 48-7 victory over Tucker in the Corky Kell Classic. Both took on prominent out-of-state opponents. Marietta played teams from Maryland and Washington, losing competitively in both. Grayson played 17-time New Jersey state champion Bergen Catholic, and lost. Grayson and Marietta played each other, too. Grayson won 38-31 in a strange game on Sept. 7 that Grayson led 35-0 in the third quarter, then had to intercept a desperate pass in the end zone in the final seconds to come out alive. Marietta, despite a 1-4 record, emerged as the region favorite when the Blue Devils beat McEachern 28-17 on Oct. 12. But a loss to Hillgrove and a season-ending injury to QB Harrison Bailey sunk the season, and it all ended in a first-round upset loss to East Coweta, a 27-point underdog. Grayson would go on to win its region, dominating defending champ Archer 41-14. But the Rams, despite a state-record 12 major Division I commits in their senior class, gave up the ghost unexpectedly in the quarterfinals, losing to Lowndes 20-15.
9. Five stars: Georgia had a record seven consensus five-star recruits in the 2019 class. Not everyone agrees who is best. Rivals.com prefers Cedar Grove wide receiver Jadon Haselwood. ESPN likes Grayson LB Owen Pappoe (committed to Auburn). The pick of 247Sports is Upson-Lee DL Travon Walker (Georgia). Other consensus five-stars are Walton wide receiver Dominick Blaylock (Georgia), Archer cornerback Andrew Booth (Clemson), Grayson offensive lineman Wanya Morris (Tennessee) and Buford offensive lineman Harry Miller (Ohio State). Greater Atlanta Christian defensive end Chris Hinton (Michigan) also is a five-star recruit according to some recruiting services. Haselwood, the consensus No. 1 prospect in Georgia, is the only one whose recruitment remains open. He’s also the only one still playing high school football. Cedar Grove plays Peach County in the Class AAA final next week.
8. Cinderellas: Each season has its share of surprising teams. This one was no different. Creekside, North Forsyth and Cherokee all made the playoffs. Each was 0-10 last season. Creekside became the first school in 18 years to go from winless to region champion in 12 months. Creekview, Hebron Christian, New Hampstead, Pickens and North Cobb Christian won playoff games for the first time. But the most enduring of these Cinderellas are still playing – Rockmart, Bainbridge and Milton. None was ranked in preseason. Rockmart hadn’t been in a state-title game since 1957 but is undefeated and favored to win Class AA. The Yellow Jackets’ last state title was in 1950. Bainbridge was just 5-5 in the regular season, and now the Bearcats are 9-5, winners of four straight against top-10 opponents. And then there’s Milton, in its first state-championship game in its 69th season of varsity football.
7. Cracked dynasties: It wasn’t the best year for old dynasties. Buford’s state records of 11 consecutive semifinal appearances and 35 consecutive home-playoff victories ended in the quarterfinals when the Wolves lost to Bainbridge 20-19. Bainbridge took a lateraled kickoff and returned it for a touchdown in the final minute. Within days, Buford head coach John Ford stepped down despite a two-year record of 21-5. Ironically, Ford had a three-year streak of taking teams to the semifinals himself, counting the two at Roswell (2015, 2016). He’s 61-17 overall as a head coach. Meanwhile, Lincoln County also saw the end to one of the state’s most amazing streaks. The Red Devils had made the playoffs each season since 1973 but finished 4-6 this year. They were 27th in the GHSA public-school power ratings. Only 24 teams make it.
6. New dynasties: No. 1-ranked teams have lost only seven times this season. Grayson and Clinch County lost early and gave way to Colquitt County and Irwin County, which haven’t lost since. Hapeville Charter and Eagle’s Landing Christian lost to bigger schools and stayed put at the top. And then in the playoffs, Hapeville lost to No. 4 Callaway in the second round, Rome’s 40-game winning streak was ended by Warner Robins in the AAAAA semifinals, and Calhoun lost to Peach County in AAA. That’s been it. In short, Georgia’s best teams have been stronger than death this year. In the highest class, Colquitt County hadn’t had a game closer than 20 points until surviving Archer in overtime last week in the semifinals. The Packers have beaten nine top-10 teams by four touchdowns or more, including fellow semifinalist Lowndes 40-6. Lee County, the No. 1 team in AAAAAA, hasn’t had a game closer than 17 points and defeated Valdosta, ranked No. 3 at the time, 63-7. ELCA is favored to win its fourth consecutive state championship. Just to remind people who they are, the Chargers won their semifinal against Savannah Christian 70-21. The average ELCA score since its August loss to Pace Academy is 64-8.
5. Region 1: In the old days, when there were just four or five classifications, Region 1 in the highest class stood for something, that mainly being South Georgia football supremacy. Nowadays, there are seven classes and eight titles to be had, and many Region 1 schools have come and gone. Even Valdosta no longer plays with the big boys. But their prowess is still felt. This year, in the highest class, Colquitt County and Lowndes of Region 1 made the semifinals, and Colquitt is still going at 14-0, heavily favored to win its third title in five years. In AAAAAA, all four Region 1 qualifiers – Lee County, Valdosta, Coffee and Northside of Warner Robins – made the quarterfinals. That had happened only one other time in history. Lee County and Northside are playing for the title on Tuesday. And in AAAAA, Region 1 rivals Warner Robins and Bainbridge are playing for their championship. Warner Robins got there by ending the 40-game winning streak of Rome in the semifinals. Bainbridge, just 5-5 in the regular season, has beaten four consecutive top-10 teams. At one time or another, all of the schools mentioned above were in Region 1 of the highest class.
4. Record-breakers: Treylon Sheppard and Marcayll Jones were names that only their fans knew much about entering this season. Both left with prominent state records. Sheppard, a running back from Haralson County, rushed for 2,874 yards in the regular season alone, breaking a record held by Nick Chubb. He finished with 2,934, third most in state history, trailing Daccus Turman and Herschel Walker. Despite his remarkable numbers, Sheppard had no major scholarship offers until recently, when several D-II and smaller schools began calling. He’s 5 feet, 9 inches, 165 pounds. Jones is still playing, but his quest of the state record is complete. The Warner Robins wide receiver has 1,893 yards receiving, which broke the record of 1,655 set in 2010 by Demarco Robinson of M.L. King. Another record-chaser was Monroe Area’s Chandler Byron, who rushed for 2,795 yards, the most ever by a Georgia quarterback. And then there’s Warner Robins QB Dylan Fromm, who set the family record for passing yards in a season last week. He has thrown for 4,120 yards, sixth most in a single season in history and 147 yards more than his brother Jake Fromm piled up in 2015 at Houston County.
3. Dylan Thomas: Pike County’s players took jersey No. 32 everywhere they traveled this football season in honor of Dylan Thomas, the junior linebacker who died on Sept. 30, two days after suffering a brain injury in a game against Peach County. The jersey was brought out to midfield for the coin toss in Pike County’s first-round playoff game, which resulted in an upset of region-champion Crisp County. “I’ll never be the same as a coach for having to go through this,” Pike County coach Brad Webber told GHSF Daily. “Dylan was one of my son’s good friends, a junior in the same class. He had taken vacations and gone to the beach with our family, and vice versa. So it was not only a player, but one that we spent a lot of time with. It puts things in perspective. You’ve got to love people and hug people. You never know what the next hour will hold.”
2. Hurricane Michael: The most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in nearly 50 years tormented the state in October and caused the postponement of more than 25 games, two that couldn’t be made up for lack of available players and became forfeits. “‘Most of our kids have been without power, a lot without water,” Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio said after his team defeated Northside of Warner Robins 24-7 on Oct. 13, a day later than originally scheduled. “Several had to leave town due to their home being unlivable and we had to track down and get back here for the game. Many had been working non-stop cleaning debris and trees or fixing roofs for the past several days.” Lee County and Bainbridge, which were directly in the path of the hurricane, and Colquitt County and Irwin County, which also were affected, are playing in state-championship games next week.
1. Tuesday Night Lights: Georgia high school football fans who had never heard of Atlanta United found out that fútbol, a.k.a. soccer, is pretty important in this state, too. The United had first dibs on Mercedes-Benz Stadium – which the soccer team filled to brim with some 70,000 fans for many of its games – if it reached the MLS Cup scheduled for Saturday. Well, it did. The GHSA’s football finals, slated for today and Saturday, were postponed last week until Tuesday and Wednesday, making for the first mid-week championship games in state history. A few don’t like the idea of Tuesday Night Lights. Some believe the alternative should’ve been a high school stadium or another neutral venue such as Georgia State. But most coaches and players would be delighted to play anywhere if it’s for the title. “We don’t care; how could you care?” said Heard County coach Tim Barron, whose school is in the final for the first time. “We can play tomorrow, next week, in somebody’s back yard. I don’t mean that to be funny. We’re just excited.”