Class 4A Semifinals Preview

Blessed Trinity (11-2) at Mary Persons (11-2)

Blessed Trinity will visit Mary Persons in the state semifinals on Friday in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinals. This is the sixth straight season that Mary Persons has been in Class AAAA. The Bulldogs have compiled a 62-14 record (all under head coach Brian Nelson) and just won their 11th playoff game in this span last week in the quarterfinals. Like Mary Persons, Blessed Trinity has also been a playoff mainstay. In his seven years as Titans head coach, Tim McFarlin has compiled a 72-19-1 record with 16 postseason victories.

This rematch is no coincidence.

Last year was the first season that Blessed Trinity competed in Class AAAA. Once the two successful programs were placed in the same classification their paths were bound to cross.


The paths crossed in last year’s quarterfinals when Mary Persons hosted Blessed Trinity for the first-ever meeting between the programs. Mary Persons was 10-2 with a loss to Peach County and a loss to Houston County in the Corky Kell Classic on its resume. Blessed Trinity’s only losses came to out-of-state opponents and they also took a 10-2 record into the matchup. As a result, neither of the schools had a loss within the classification when they met on Nov. 25, 2016 at Dan Pitts Stadium.

There were plenty of other intriguing storylines surrounding the matchup. The winner was almost guaranteed to have to face defending state champion Cartersville the next week and this game was an opportunity to see if a team could emerge that could compete with the Purple Hurricanes. Blessed Trinity’s youth on offense and the success they were already having with a sophomore starting at quarterback, running back and receiver was also a site to see. Especially since the Titans were about to face a talented Mary Persons defense loaded with experience, including current University of Georgia defensive end Malik Herring.

The game proved to be intensely close from start to finish and never got away from either team. A Jake Smith to Ryan Davis touchdown gave the Titans a 7-0 lead before Mary Persons’ Zach Harvey tied the game with an early second quarter touchdown run. Mary Persons grabbed its first lead of the game (14-10) with a 9-yard touchdown run with 4:30 left in the half, but Blessed Trinity kicker Brooks Hosea cut the deficit to 14-13 with his second made field goal.

Blessed Trinity reclaimed the lead in the third quarter with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Will Carlton and Steele Chambers ran in the 2-point conversion to make it 21-14. Mary Persons used an 80-yard drive to tie at 21-21 with 4:19 left in the third frame. Hosea made his third field goal to briefly put Blessed Trinity up 24-21 before Caleb Speir connected with Roger Akins for a 69-yard Mary Persons touchdown to put the Bulldogs back up 28-24 with 10:44 left. Hosea’s fourth made field goal of the game cut the deficit to 28-27. Mary Persons had the football at midfield with under a minute left and could’ve iced the game with a first down but instead saw a comedy of errors gift-wrap Blessed Trinity an opportunity to steal the win. A busted play on third-and-1 led to a false start penalty that set up an 8-yard punt on fourth-and-6. Trailing 28-27, Blessed Trinity took over at the 46-yard line with 31 seconds to go. The Titans got all the way down to the Bulldogs’ 11-yard line with seven seconds left on the clock when Hosea trotted out to the right hash to attempt the game-winning kick. Instead, the West Point signee’s kick went too straight and ended up missing just right as Mary Persons burst into celebration.


Mary Persons was knocked out in the semifinals the following week by Cartersville 38-17 and the Bulldogs were about to face more turnover on their roster than any previous offseason in Nelson’s tenure. The program lost 26 seniors, 18 of them starters. Junior quarterback J.T. Hartage would have to replace Speir after going just 6-of-12 passing for 113 yards and touchdown in his entire time as the backup. Quen Wilson had shown promise as a sophomore coming out of the Mary Persons backfield and he had a solid performance against Blessed Trinity with his 155 rushing yards and rushing score off 14 carries. But there was still a lack of experience returning in the passing game as well as three juniors that would be starting for the first time on the Bulldogs offensive line.

But here we are. Mary Persons is Class AAAA’s only remaining public school and the only semifinalist from last season to return to the Final Four. Friday will mark the first semifinal game played at Dan Pitts Stadium since 1993 when the stadium’s namesake led the Bulldogs to a 14-13 win over Washington County.

And once again, the Bulldogs have advanced to the semis without a loss to a single Class AAAA opponent on their resume. Their region unbeaten streak grew to 16 games with a clean sweep of Region 2-AAAA this season and they have done it with a roster that, like Blessed Trinity’s, is loaded with juniors.
Hartage has rushed for seven scores this season while completing nearly 69 percent of his passes with a stellar 18 touchdown passes to three interceptions ratio. On the ground, Wilson is coming off a career-high 213 yards and four touchdown performance in Mary Persons’ 51-32 quarterfinals win over Jefferson. The defense has also shown maturity in the playoffs. After shutting out Carver-Columbus in the first round, the defense held Baldwin to just 56 total yards in the second half of its 39-14 second round victory. Last Friday, Jefferson was forced to commit five turnovers.

As impressive as Mary Persons has been, Blessed Trinity’s playoff run has undoubtably been the most significant out of any of the remaining semifinalists. The Titans’ postseason also opened with a first round shutout (35-0 over Oconee County) and then they stifled two-time defending state champion Cartersville on the road 21-17 in the second round. Cartersville managed just one offensive touchdown in the defeat. The Titans followed what will be considered one of the state’s biggest playoff upsets for years to come with a 43-13 beatdown over Thomson the following week.


Coach Nelson faced a younger version of this Blessed Trinity squad last year and already knows the incredible challenges his team faces this time around. Mary Persons on the other hand will be much-different than last year’s squad and coach McFarlin will expect the Bulldogs to try to use that to their advantage. As for my own expectations, I expect another strong and focused performance out of Blessed Trinity. That being said, we should watch this game closely no matter what the score ends up being, because both of these teams are on a path to be even better in 2018.


St. Pius (8-5) at Marist (13-0)

The archrival Catholic schools are squaring off for the second time this season and will play in the 53rd edition of the ‘Fish Bowl’ Friday night for a spot in the Class AAAA state championship.

THE RIVALRY: The rivalry began in 1962 and Marist opened it with just one victory in its first 14 attempts at taking down St. Pius. Legendary Georgia high school football coach George Maloof was at the helm of St. Pius in the 1960′s and 70′s and the Golden Lions were the dominant team. The series did not take a turn until 1976 when a 35-7 Marist victory sparked an unimaginable stretch of success. Including the 35-7 victory, the War Eagles won 29 of the next 33 meetings between the schools. As a result, Marist now leads the all-time series 32-17-3.

Saying there is a familiarity between the two programs would be a gross understatement. This will be the 30th time that Marist head coach Alan Chadwick has faced St. Pius and Paul Standard has been the Golden Lions’ head coach in every Fish Bowl since 2001. Defense has prevailed throughout the series and seeing a last second victory or overtime game is much more common than anything resembling a shootout. Only four times in the 52 all-time meetings have both of the teams scored 20 or more points in a game and Marist took all four of them. St. Pius, however, has been able to take back serious momentum in the series in the past decade. Its 28-3 win in 2009 marked the first time since 1975 that St. Pius posted back-to-back wins over Marist. A four-year hiatus paused the rivalry before they met again in 2014 and 2015 and St. Pius added two more wins to extend the streak to four-straight victories against Marist. Marist snapped it with a 13-0 home win last season and then took this year’s meeting with a narrow 17-14 road victory.


Take a look at Marist’s 17-14 victory over St. Pius on Sept. 8 of this season and it makes this semifinals matchup that much more intriguing (and personal). In that game, Marist was able to exploit St. Pius’ one-dimensional rushing offense holding the home team to just two of nine passes for 23 yards (more on this in Key’s to Victory). The St. Pius defense managed to hold Marist to just 72 yards through the air while limiting its prolific running game to under 200 yards. Regardless, the game came down to the wire as Marist dealt a heart-breaking defeat to the Golden Lions as time expired. The first scoring opportunity for either team did not come until there was nine minutes left in the first half and St. Pius came up empty on it in what would’ve been a 40-yard field goal. Marist quarterback Chase Abshier was intercepted on the next War Eagles possession and St. Pius got on the board this time with a 10-yard Jason Jones touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead. Marist answered right back with a 14-play, 80-yard drive with Abshier plowing his way in for a 1-yard touchdown to even it 7-7. The first half was winding down and St. Pius was forced to punt on its next possession, but that turned out to be a critical miscue. The punt traveled just 11 yards and Marist took over at midfield, giving Abshier and the Marist offense enough time to march into St. Pius territory and find fullback Patrick Miles for an 18-yard touchdown with just 19 seconds left before the break. Now trailing 14-7, St. Pius missed a 37-yard field goal in a scoreless third quarter, but successfully tied the game 14-14 with just five minutes left on a Scott Bradwell 1-yard touchdown run. A critical pass interference call on St. Pius negated an interception and helped Marist march down the field for a game-winning drive that ended with Timmy Bleekrode’s 25-yard field goal at the buzzer.


Marist is once again going to have to slow down a St. Pius running game that has continued to improve in each of the 10 games since their September meeting. The Golden Lions are averaging nearly 41 points per game in playoffs and have scored 35 points or more in each of the past seven games. St. Pius pounded Woodward Academy with a whopping 428 rushing yards last week and running back Jason Jones turned just eight carries into an explosive 182 yards and two touchdowns. This could be a much-different game since the last time the teams faced and it appears now that St. Pius is prepared to be one dimensional if that’s what the defense is willing to give them. In fact, St. Pius defeated Woodward Academy without even attempting a pass. Marist just needs to be patient and pick its moments wisely to keep St. Pius’ defense honest with the passing game.


After starting 0-5, the Golden Lions are winners of their last eight games and now have a chance to spoil their biggest rival’s perfect season to advance to the state championship. This incredible opportunity wouldn’t be possible without the resiliency and grit that has driven St. Pius throughout its season. Like the Golden Lions, however, Marist is also playing its best football of the season and the War Eagles and their defense has only gotten tougher since the teams met in September. In the quarterfinals, Marist defeated a Burke County team that averaged 41.3 points per game 28-6 and held the Bears to their lowest point total since 2014 in the process. Still, St. Pius’ keys to victory may once again just come down to better execution on special teams.

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