Championship Preview: Class AAA

Photo by Perry McIntyre

Calhoun: 14-0, Region 6 No. 1 Seed

Calhoun has once again been up to its usual tricks this season: region dominance, home cooking and an appearance in the state championship game. The Yellow Jackets captured their 14th consecutive region title and have extended their winning streak at Phil Reeve Stadium to 57 games while booking a fifth trip to the Georgia Dome inthe last six years. The 2014 campaign got off to an inauspicious start when the Jackets trailed 14-0 at halftime of their opener against Dalton. They stormed back to win that game 21-14 and for the most part it has been one-way traffic ever since. Hal Lamb’s squad did not come close to playing another regular-season game so competitive. Calhoun won the rest of its contests prior to the state playoffs by at least two touchdowns, including six by more than 40 points and two of which were 59-0 and 67-0 whitewashes of Lakeview-Ft. Oglethorpe and Coahulla Creek, respectively. Clearly the Yellow Jackets can be dominant at times and that was the case in a 45-7 first-round romp over Westside-Augusta and in the round of 16 against Cedar Grove, which it crushed 38-18. But things got difficult in a hurry, to the extent that Calhoun’s season came dangerously close to an abrupt end. A quarterfinal showdown with Elbert County was tied 10-10 at the half and at 17-17 in the final two minutes. The visitors even had possession, but a perfect punt by Jonah Landry pinned Elbert County back at its own two-yard line and the Calhoun defense came up with a game-winning safety one play later. Although the Jackets were tested by Westminster in the semifinals, quarterback Kaelen Riley took the suspense out of it before any late-game dramatics were required. Riley completed 18 of 23 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came from at least 27 yards away. Calhoun’s last state title came in an exciting overtime win over Buford in the Class 2A title game in 2011.

Washington County: 14-0, Region 3 No. 1 Seed

Washington County has been trending in the right direction dating back to 2011. If the trend continues, a state championship in 2014 will be the result. The Golden Hawks lost in the first round three years ago, reached the quarterfinals in 2012 and finished runner-up last season (lost to Buford 35-19 in the Class AAA title game). With the dynasty that is Buford football out of the way in Class AAAA, Washington County looks like the new dominant force of this classification. It has been clobbering opponents from start to finish this year and no opponent has come within single-digits. The Golden Hawks’ most competitive contest of the regular season was a routine 47-27 disposal of Burke County. While their defense has been stellar (two shutouts and seven games of no more than seven points allowed), their offense has been overwhelming. They are averaging more than 51 points per outing, have scored more than 70 points three times and have won nine games by more than 30 points. Quarterback A.J. Gray is borderline unstoppable. In his team’s first 10 games he rushed for 1,161 yards and 20 touchdowns while throwing for 1,278 yards and 17 scores. He ran especially rampant in a 62-35 quarterfinal win over Pierce County, amassing 442 yards and eight touchdowns. In a 28-17 semifinal defeat of Blessed Trinity, Gray racked up 277 rushing yards and three scores.Still, Washington County is far from one-dimensional. Not only does coach Joel Ingram let Gray air it out, but the rushing workload is also shared by Ethan Ray. The senior running back contributed 99 yards and a score on 17 attempts against Blessed Trinity. Those two stars are also game-changers on defense. Gray has returned four interceptions for touchdowns and Ray picked off a pass in a first-round blowout ofJackson-Atlanta and took it 90 yards to the endzone. Interestingly, the Golden Hawks have sent six players to NFL including All-Pro linebacker Takeo Spikes.


Twenty-eight games-14 for each school did nothing to change what the rankings suggested at the very beginning of the season: that Calhoun and Washington County would collide in the championship. Not only was the talent of the two teams well-documented heading into 2015, but they are also well-respected programs. Calhoun’s previous nine seasons resulted in two quarterfinal showings, five runner-up finishes and one state title (2011). Washington County captured three championships in a four-year span from 1994 through 1997. If this battle lives up to the hype and goes down to the wire, both teams should benefitfrom having survived tense moments. While Calhoun escaped Elbert County, Washington County overcame Blessed Trinity after trailing 10-0. The quarterback battle between Kaelen Riley and A.J. Gray will obviously be intriguing, as will the Jackets’ defensive effort to contain Gray. Calhoun’s starters, led by linebacker Austin Bennett and end Landon Rice, have given up only 34 points in four playoff games. This is the only classification that featured two undefeated team.


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