Friday State Championship Preview


Tucker (13-1)

Tucker returns to the finals for the first time since 2013 and searches for the school’s third state title after winning the crown in 2008 and 2011. Head coach Bryan Lamar’s squad opened the season with a 20-13 loss to Kell in the 25th anniversary of the Corky Kell Classic, but has strung together a 13-game winning and grown as a contender for the state title in each week since. The Tigers went down to Colquitt County to close non-region play on Sept. 3 and battled out a 21-20 win. In Region 4 play, Tucker swept its seven opponents and included a 31-0 win over rival Stephenson in the region championship game to set the tone for what’s been an even more impressive playoff run. After cruising past Bradwell Institute in the first round, Tucker has scored wins over 2016 powers Harrison (23-7), Mays (28-21) and Northside-Warner Robins (22-7) on its road to the Dome. Defensively, 6-foot-3, 260-pound senior Aaron Sterling is one of the state’s top playmakers at defensive end. Sterling added to his season-long highlight tape in the semifinals with a fumble recovery on a botched option pitch that he scooped and scored from 42 yards out. In the win over Harrison in the second round, Sterling posted a career-high six sacks to go with a season-high 12 tackles. Offensively, wide receiver Josh Vann is coming off an incredible semifinal performance that included six receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns. Vann’s final score came on a 58-yard touchdown reception that pushed the score to 22-7. Vann leads Tucker with 13 receiving touchdowns this season. In the Tigers’ backfield, Chris Broadwater and Taurean Taylor form a two-headed rushing attack that combines the power of Broadwater and the quickness of Taylor. Broadwater has rushed in 21 touchdowns this season, while Taylor has accounted for 16 rushing scores. Quarterback Xavier Shepard uses the skillset of Vann to make plays down the field in order to keep the talented running game flourishing and near their 250 yards per game average.

Valdosta (13-1)

Valdosta’s lone loss came in a 45-24 matchup with Colquitt County in non-region play, but the Wildcats emerged from arguably the state’s most talented regions with a flawless record and have continued this dominance in the playoffs. Valdosta took the region title in a pool of teams that included Northside-Warner Robins, Lee County, Coffee and Houston County. In addition to Colquitt County, the Wildcats also shared Stephenson and Northside-Warner Robins as common opponents to Tucker, and scored victories in both contests. Head coach Alan Rodemaker has made a strong first impression in his first year leading the nation’s all-time winningest high school program. The Wildcats’ 13-1 record this season is the highest win total since 1998, which coincidentally marks the last time the school added a state title to a shelve that currently holds 24 state crowns. In the semifinals, the Wildcats took a road trip to Dalton where the undefeated Catamounts waited. Valdosta limited Dalton to just 80 total yards in the first half and held their star running back Ahmaad Tanner to a modest 48 rushing yards. Josh Belton meanwhile quarterbacked Valdosta to a 27-6 victory over Dalton with his best performance of the year. Belton finished the game 15 of 21 passing for 190 yards and four touchdowns. It was Belton’s night as co-quarterback Hunter Holt left the game in the third quarter with injuries still lingering from the quarterfinals victory over Stephenson. Belton and Holt have shared the quarterback role throughout the season. Belton connected with J.R. Ingram for two of his touchdown passes on Friday, including the final score after Dalton cut the deficit to 21-6. Up front, Jared Allen leads an offensive line that has experience playing together and a high-football IQ needed to match up with aggressive defenses built on physical disruption like Tucker. As for the Valdosta defense, James Bushware leads the middle of the Wildcats defense with Zakoby McClain. If the finals turn into a defensive battle, Valdosta has talent to match up with the size and speed of Tucker along with the most aggressive offensive play calling. The Wildcats held five-star quarterback Jake Fromm and Houston County to 24 points in the regular season finale and just 255 total yards of offense. Those 255 yards resulted in the fewest offensive yards in a game from Fromm’s historic high school career.

The Skinny:

Tucker and Valdosta have never met on the gridiron, despite being two of the state’s most regularly discussed top-tier programs. Tucker is healthy after an injury-plagued season last year that still resulted in a playoff win over Hughes and trip to the round of 16. Valdosta has also reloaded this year and this has marked the program’s first double-digit winning season in six years. As a result, both programs have experienced renaissance seasons in order to reach the final week of the 2016 season. This matchup will pin two disciplined defenses that have triumphed over any variety of offense this state has to offer. Not giving up the big play and forcing third-and-long situations looks to be the winning formula that will tilt this evenly lined matchup.



Buford (13-1)

Buford is making its 10th consecutive appearance in a state championship game. The Wolves fell short to Cartersville 10-0 last season in finals, but have been victorious in the championship seven other times since 2007 and have 11 state titles on their resume. This year’s season opened with a 24-7 loss to Roswell in the MetroPCS Corky Kell Classic, and followed with a trio of out-of-state opponents and the start of a 13-game winning streak. The Wolves’ latest win was a 28-16 victory over Kell that brought out the physicality needed to hold off a disciplined Longhorns team. Running back Christian Turner rushed for 139 yards on 24 carries, and his 3-yard touchdown with 2:11 left essentially clinched the 12-point win. This followed Turner’s 276-yard rushing effort in the quarterfinals victory over Carrollton. T.D. Roof, who is a force at linebacker, rushed for 114 yards and had two sacks on defense. It was the second straight playoff game in which Buford had two 100-yard rushers. Roof also scored on an early four-yard touchdown and kept the Wolves in control of the game by converting on three fourth down tries. On the final fourth down call made by head coach Jess Simpson, Roof raced his way in for a 58-yard touchdown. The Georgia-Tech commit added a pair of sacks on defense as the unit held Kell to 179 yards of total offense. “What’s fun for me is to see how excited they are to have an opportunity to get to play in the Georgia Dome next Friday,” Simpson told the Gwinnett Daily Post following the win. “It’s been a long grind, it’s been a long season. Just for any team, we are going to be prepared, we are going to savor it. We are looking forward it.” Buford’s offense and defense were clicking last week, but a 44-yard Kell punt return touchdown surrendered after the first possession of the semifinals is an area the Wolves will address before taking on Rome.

Rome (12-2)

Rome’s successful run to its first-ever state championship has been fueled by a pair of sophomore playmakers. In the semifinals, this Class of 2019 duo came up huge to score a thrilling 28-21 victory over Stockbridge. Quarterback Knox Kadum threw for 152 yards and a touchdown while Jamious Griffin carried the ball 31 times for 157 yards and three scores. The three trips to the end zone marked Griffin’s10th multi-touchdown game of the season and brought his total up to 25 rushing scores this year. Defensively, Stockbridge was held to just 75 rushing yards in the semifinals, but the passing game was a much different story. Stockbridge quarterback Kenderick Duncan found wide receiver Marquez Ezzard nine times for 201 yards. It took Griffin’s game-winning touchdown run with 6:40 left in the game and a fortunate muffed punt by Ezzard in the final 1:32 to close out the win and overcome an otherwise brilliant performance from the Stockbridge receiver. “I just don’t think our kids got a quit in them, and that’s why our kids are going to the championship,” Rome head coach John Reid told the Rome News-Tribune. “This was a game unlike what we’ve seen in 10 weeks and that worried me, but these kids responded. … It is hard to game plan against that receiver [Ezzard]. They [Stockbridge] just threw it deep and the kid is a great player.” With plenty of film to watch and reflect on in regards to the passing game, Rome can polish up its top-notch defense before Friday’s challenging matchup with Buford. In the eight victories before Stockbridge, Rome’s defense produced four shutouts, held three other teams to single digits and averaged a mere 4.1 points allowed per game. Rome had seen a running clock in nearly every fourth quarter during its current 11-game winning streak, before having to find a way to close out Stockbridge. The focus against Buford will be avoiding the big play and putting together the long scoring drives that will keep the defense as rested as possible.

The Skinny

In this all Wolves championship showdown, one of championship weekend’s most intriguing storylines is set to unfold. While Buford makes its 10th straight finals appearance, Rome making its first-ever championship appearance against the state’s most familiar finalist. Rome has grown from a 1-2 start by compiling an 11-game winning streak that included the Region 7 crown. In addition to a defense that has held seven of its last nine opponents to single digits, Rome has an offense headlined by sophomores that have seen breakout years. Buford has often cruised to the finals without being challenged, but this year the Wolves have hard-fought wins over Carrollton and Kell and the taste of a championship loss to Cartersville a year ago sharpening their focus.


Class AAA

GAC (13-1)

Riding an 11-game winning streak, Greater Atlanta Christian is ready to capture its first state title behind the arm of Stanford-commit Davis Mills. The five-star quarterback was expected to miss three to four months with a dislocated knee just before the season started but instead returned by Game 3 against Valor Christian, Co., a nationally televised game and the Spartans’ only loss of the season, 21-17. Mills quickly shook off any rust and has thrown for 2,730 yards, 34 touchdowns and just one interception. His knee looks just fine as well, rushing for 303 yards and eight scores on the ground. Kyler McMichael has excelled rushing the ball as well, taking some pressure off of Mills’ shoulders. The junior has gained 1,416 yards and punched in 15 scores. Coach Tim Hardy’s high-flying offense has averaged 37 points per game and thoroughly dominated Region 7-AAA, their closest game coming in their region opener against Union County, 35-12. Seniors Devin Thomas and Davis Markham lead the defense. Thomas, a linebacker, has a team-best 98 stops while Markham, a safety, has recorded 90 tackles. Greater Atlanta Christian has brought pressure with 19 sacks this year, but it’s their ballhawking secondary that feasts on opponents’ mistakes. The Spartans have 12 interceptions with Reid Smith (4), Trey Morrison (3) and Thomas (2) the main culprits of turning teams over. Coach Hardy has all facets of the game covered and should feel at ease if the championship comes down to special teams. Brooks Buce has a booming leg, hitting 11-of-18 with a long of 54 yards. Buce might be leaned on in a pinch as the Spartans has seen their road to the Dome get tougher by the week. In rounds one and two, Greater Atlanta Christian handled Pace Academy 35-17 and Worth County 34-21.  They had to travel to Hinesville however in the quarterfinals where they survived a wild triple overtime game with Liberty County, 44-38 and beat Peach County in the semis 13-7.

Cedar Grove (12-2)

Following an up-and-down 3-2 start to the season, the Cedar Grove Saints have righted the ship, pitching five shutouts during their nine-game winning streak. Their last loss came on the road when Westminster embarrassed the Saints 42-21 on September 23. Coach Jimmy Smith’s team responded by outscoring their next four opponents 196-0. In the first round of the playoffs, the Saints met Union County, a familiar face to state championship adversary Greater Atlanta Christian, who the Spartans beat 35-12. Cedar Grove topped GAC’s 23-point win by wrecking the Panthers 63-17. In Round 2 it was Jenkins’ turn to run into the DeKalb County buzz saw. The Saints went to Memorial Stadium in Savannah and dominated the Warriors 28-3. Calhoun was no match in the quarterfinals, falling 47-21 and in the semifinals, 13-0 Crisp County was smashed on their home field by the Saints 55-0. Cedar Grove enters the title game coming off their best showing off the season, firing on all cylinders. Oklahoma State-commit Jelani Woods has been unstoppable under center. The 6-foot-8 quarterback and double-double machine on the hardwood has thrown for 27 touchdowns the season with over 2,300 yards passing. He threw three touchdowns and ran in a score against Crisp County. Woods’ favorite target this season has been sophomore Jadon Haselwood. The playmaking wide out has caught 12 touchdown passes. Grant Walker, a Georgia Southern-commit, has rushed for over 1,700 yards and has 17 touchdowns on the ground to balance the Saints’ offensive attack. Defensively, DeAngelo Malone and Roderic Forts wreak havoc. Malone has 11.5 sacks and picked up a safety against Crisp County. He and Forts have over 50 tackles for a loss combined. Cedar Grove’s one possible weakness is its lack of a kicking game. Solee Fofana made his first field goal of the season in the semifinals. This is Cedar Grove’s first state championship appearance since 1991 when the Saints fell to Cartersville, 28-19.

The Skinny

Two big time quarterbacks will try to sling their teams to their respective programs’ first ever state title. Davis Mills (Stanford) has been nearly flawless under center for Greater Atlanta Christian while 6-foot-8 Jelani Woods (Oklahoma State) is tough to bring down when he’s in the pocket or on the move. The Saints are averaging 41.3 points and holding opponents to 11 points on average while the Spartans light up the scoreboard for 37 points on average and give up 14.9 points on defense. Greater Atlanta Christian will have to keep DeAngelo Malone out of the backfield while Cedar Grove must protect the ball through the air against the Spartans’ opportunistic secondary. If the game comes down to kicking, GAC has the advantage with Brooks Buce’s leg.


Class A-Private

ELCA (13-0)

On the line for Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy is the program’s fourth state title, a 2015 title defense and a record breaking 22nd straight win. The Chargers have clobbered everyone in their path with their biggest scares coming in the second game of the year against Jonesboro and on September 30 at Wesleyan in a then, No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown. Against Jonesboro, the Chargers gutted out an ugly 8-2 victory. Over the next three weeks their offense responded, outscoring opponents 167-0. Clicking on all cylinders, ELCA visited Norcross to battle with Wesleyan. The Chargers escaped with a 34-31 win, a Johnathan Youngblood interception with close to five minutes remaining helping ELCA stave off the Wolves. Brayden Rush, a sophomore, tossed a touchdown to Sean Queen to put the game out of reach following the turnover. The two team locked horns again however in the quarterfinals after Eagle’s Landing Christian beat First Presbyterian in the playoffs 59-7. This time the Chargers’ ground game overwhelmed Wesleyan, rushing for 342 yards and five touchdowns on 49 carries in a 35-13 win. Trevor Gear and Josh Mays paced the attack, rushing for 163 yards and 115 yards respectively. In ELCA’s 42-21 semifinal victory over Tattnall Square Academy, the Chargers were held to 191 yards rushing, 130 belonging to Gear as he ran for a score and caught a touchdown as well. Rush hit Queen on a backbreaking 73-yard bomb to seal the game. Coach Jonathan Gess will rely on the Chargers’ championship pedigree against upstart Fellowship Christian. In 2015, the Chargers overwhelmed Aquinas 35-14 in the Class A-Private state championship.  The calling card for this year’s team has been a dominant defense. The Chargers have allowed just 101 points, good for a 7.7 points per game average. Offensively, ELCA has hung over 45 points per game on the scoreboard.

Fellowship Christian (13-0)

Head Coach Al Morrell has slowly built Fellowship Christian into a Class A-Private contender. Now in Year 4 at the helm, Morrell has broke through this season after posting records of 5-5, 4-6 and 5-5 over the past three seasons. The Paladins have racked up a school-record 13 wins, topping their previous high of 11 in 2007 when Fellowship took a trip to the quarterfinals. In fact since the ‘07 season, the Paladins hadn’t recorded a winning record until this year. They started to turn some heads in Week 2 when they knocked off Mt. Paran 14-7 and continued to gain momentum as they defeated Mt. Zion-Carroll 28-14 in the final week of the regular season. In the playoffs, Fellowship Christian disposed of George Walton Academy 38-7 and ran into Region 6 foe Mt. Paran in the quarterfinals where they drilled the Eagles in their rematch, 45-13. The Paladins edged Prince Avenue Christian 31-28 in the semifinals to set up their first state championship appearance. Against the Wolverines, quarterback Jack Hardin finished 14-of-22 for 120 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 114 yards and two scores on 25 carries. Hardin also managed three tackles on defense and picked off a pass. The senior leader has been a stalwart on both sides of the ball for the Paladins. He has 60 tackles and has thrown for 1,630 yards and 24 touchdowns with just three interceptions while also gaining 690 yards on the ground with 14 scores. His favorite receiving target has been Ryan Reid. The senior has 58 catches for 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Paladin offense is balanced by seniors Andrew Johnson and Andrew Minkert. Johnson has rushed for 1,063 yards and 12 touchdowns while Minkert has added 983 yards and 10 scores. Junior Billy McCurry paces the defense with 89 tackles, 19 for loss and eight sacks.

The Skinny

Eagle’s Landing Christian has experience on the big stage, winning the 2015 state championship while Fellowship Christian has rode a Cinderella story to the title game after winning just five games a year ago. The Chargers will be the Paladins greatest challenge yet as ELCA is battle-tested against the likes of Wesleyan (2x), Landmark Christian and Tattnall Square. Fellowship Christian has passed all of its tests thus far with Mt. Paran, Mt. Zion-Carroll and Prince Avenue Christian being their best resume builders. Jack Hardin’s dual-threat magic under center will be a deciding factor in whether Fellowship can polish off their dream season with their first ever title.


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