On Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the No. 5 Rabun County Wildcats will play the No. 2 Hapeville Charter Hornets for the GHSA's Class AA state championship. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. It will be the first-ever title game appearance for the two programs, both of which have dominated the competition to reach this point.
The Hornets have stormed through their season in the face a blistering non-region schedule that included then-No. 3 Fitzgerald, private school powerhouses Pace Academy and Wesleyan, and Thompson — one of the top schools in all of Alabama. The Thompson game, which was their second of the season, marked their only loss. Since then, they've posted five shutouts and, in the quarterfinals, knocked off Benedictine — the state's then-undefeated, defending champs — by two scores.
Both the Hornets and Wildcats are playing with the confidence that they can come away with championship hardware on Saturday, and both have recently and suddenly risen to prominence to find themselves in the title game.
Here's a look at the path each program took to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Hapeville Charter — from the ground up
When Hapeville Charter was established in 2009, then-principal Jannard Rainey's plans for the athletic department included a football program. To start it, Rainey selected Winston Gordon, who at the time was serving as director of recreation for the City of Atlanta. Before that, he lived in Savannah and coached as an assistant for Savannah State's football program.
Gordon accepted the job and went to work on assembling a staff with the expectations of debuting the program in 2011. He handpicked assistants including Kevin Pope, Saeed Lee and Richard Basil, whom Gordon had worked under when Basil was head coach at Savannah State.
"I came in with no expectations other than to build a competitive brand," Gordon said. "We started from the ground up in the mold that I wanted to see (the program) built in, and I was able to get so many key pieces with the staff in place."
In the Hornets' inaugural 2011 season, they were considered a Class A school, though they only played four non-region games and lost all of them. The team consisted only of freshman. In 2012, they moved to 6-AA, where they remain today, and went 3-7, then followed that with a 1-8-1 record in 2013.
In 2014, they notched the program's first region win and finished 4-6. That would be their last losing season.
The Hornets endured the same growing pains all startup programs deal with, and while the season records didn't stand out, Gordon could see the program shaping up with victories that don't show up in the win-loss columns, including sending players to college via football scholarships.
Hapeville Charter's prime example of collegiate success is LSU's Arden Key, who is currently ranked by ESPN's Todd McShay as the No. 7 overall prospect for the 2018 NFL draft.
Gordon said bringing along players like Key and setting them up for success beyond high school is what helped shaped this season's Hornets.
"When you're able to help children achieve their dreams and make them understand that you care about them and you love them, they'll come to you," Gordon said. "Even without winning, we were producing a lot of D-I players and so when kids see that pedigree, they want to be involved."
The Hornets posted their first winning season in 2015, going 6-4. But, as was the case the previous season, they finished 3-4 in league play and were left on the outside looking in when it came to the playoffs. In 6-AA, the playoff spots were occupied by established private schools GAC, Lovett, Wesleyan and Pace Academy.
In the time Hapeville Charter was in the same region with those four schools, it went 1-15 against them.
"Those programs have longevity," Gordon said. "We were just starting and we were on the cusp of being more competitive. Of course, playing those programs helped shape whatever program we were going to be. Me being new to Georgia high school football, it let me know what the barometer was, because they were competing for state titles. I knew we'd have to put the work in and we did."
Ahead of the 2016 season, 6-AA was shed of the private schools and, at the same time, Hapeville Charter was coming into its own. The Hornets would go undefeated in league play and clinch their first-ever playoff spot. In the first playoff game in program history, they beat Monticello 42-0. They'd knock off Jefferson County and Chattooga before Fitzgerald eliminated them in the semifinals.
But as impressive as that first playoff run was, it was only an appetizer for 2017.
The Hornets opened this season ranked No. 2 in AA and loaded with weapons, including quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams, Tyleek Collins, who was a transfer from Benedictine, and five AA preseason all-state selections: receiver Rory Starkey, offensive lineman Ousman Traore, defensive lineman Kingsley Enagbare, linebacker Caleb Kelley and defensive back Chris Smith.
With a plethora of D-I talent on both sides of the ball, the Hornets — who endearingly refer to themselves simply as "The Charter" — were confident they were the best team in AA and the results on the field were proving that in their eyes. Yet, when it came to pollsters, journalists, bloggers and other Georgia high school football experts, they felt due recognition was being denied.
Even though the private schools from the old 6-AA weren't around, the Hornets still scheduled Pace Academy and Wesleyan and beat them a combined 72-3. They lost narrowly on the road, 21-20, to a Thompson team that went 10-0 and was ranked No. 2 in Alabama's highest classification heading into the state playoffs. They earned their revenge against Fitzgerald — the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last season — by beating them 25-22. They again stormed through 6-AA, giving up a total of 15 points in six region games, an average of 2.5 a game.
Yet, there the Hornets were, stuck with a No. 2 ranking behind Benedictine.
"We've been the underdog all year," Gordon said. "People look at us and think that these kids from South Fulton are not what they, which is champions. They practice and play like champions every week and we approach each week to win. We heard all year that (Benedictine) was the better team even though we played just as quality of opponents as they did. We knew what he had and we took (being ranked behind Benedictine) personally, and you can tell by the score (of the Benedictine game). We jumped on them early and didn't let up."
Gordon, Basil and Collins returned to their old stomping grounds of Savannah in the quarterfinals and the Hornets played Benedictine angrily. By the time the dust settled, there was no question Hapeville Charter was the better team. After jumping to leads of 21-0 and 28-7, the Hornets beat Benedictine 31-17.
After beating Heard County in the semifinals, the Hornets are just one win away from a championship. That's a lot of progress for having played just six full varsity seasons. And they've done it with limited facilities that starkly contrast to those of Benedictine and the private schools formerly of 6-AA. They don't even have a home field, instead splitting home games between Banneker, Grady and Lakewood Stadium.
"We don't have all the things big schools have," Gordon said. "We push trucks in parking lots. We have a workman mentality and we come to work every day."
Rabun County — Shaw comes home
In comparison to Hapeville Charter's upstart program, Rabun County's is a fossil. The Wildcats started playing football in 1949 and hadn't had much success to speak of between their inaugural year and 2011. In that span, they'd advanced in the postseason just once — 1998, when Sonny Smart guided them to a quarterfinals appearance and an 11-2 record.
Success just didn't seem to travel up to Tiger, a small mountain town 100 miles northeast of Atlanta.
All that changed in 2012, however. That's the year one of the state's best coaches, Lee Shaw, decided to return to his alma mater and lead the Wildcats. Shaw was the starting quarterback and played safety for Rabun County from 1981-84. The Wildcats enjoyed three winning seasons in that span, including an 8-3 record his senior year.
Shaw earned his name in the high school ranks by building up Flowery Branch's program from scratch, beginning in 2002. The Falcons went 0-10 that inaugural season, but by 2005 they had reached the playoffs and advanced to the quarterfinals. That was the start of seven consecutive postseason appearances for Shaw and Flowery Branch, and in that time they reached the the finals once (2008), the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals twice. In 10 seasons at Flowery Branch, he compiled a 79-41 record.
Despite winning at Flowery Branch, Shaw always wanted the chance to replicate that success at Rabun County. So when the opportunity came, he pounced. Success instantly followed Shaw to Tiger. In his first season back home, the Wildcats went 6-5 for their first winning season since 2000.
The Wildcats' record has steadily improved in each season under Shaw. They went 8-3 in 2013, followed by 9-3, 11-2, 11-1 and now 14-0 this season. In 2014, they won their first playoff game since 1998 and they reached the quarterfinals in 2015 and 2016.
This season has been, without question, the best in program history. In fact, it's harder to have a better season up to this point. No Peach State team has scored more points than them (661), and while they're averaging 47.2 points a game, they're allowing just 9.8. With that type of dominance, it's no surprise the Wildcats find themselves one win away from the AA title trophy.
The Wildcats are undefeated thus far thanks to the phenomenal play of senior quarterback Bailey Fisher. The 6-foot, 195-pound Fisher is on the AJC's Player of the Year Watch and has already been named the 8-AA player of the year. In addition to his 3,145 passing yards, he leads the team in rushing with 1,175 yards and has accounted for 67 touchdowns.
The equally dominant defense has been led by defensive back Austin Jones, linebackers Gavyn Jones and Dawson Henricks and a line anchored by Tanner Jarrard, Jackson Webb and Austin Sosebee.
They opened the season by dropping 62 points on a Mount Pisgah team that was ranked No. 9 in A-private heading into the playoffs before dominating AAAA's Stephens County, White County and West Hall. Similar to the Hornets, the Wildcats dominated their region, 8-AA, with six blowout wins, the closest of which was 35-7 against Elbert County.
They haven't slowed down in the playoffs either.
"They're playing for each other and that's the biggest thing," Shaw said. "They're playing our kind of football and we're not letting teams dictate us out of the game. They play hard and they're not a selfish group. They want to win and they've believed in the process, which really started at last year's (end-of-season) banquet. We've talked about what it takes to get to the Benz and we've always believed we could get there. This is the epitome of a team and this group is the best I've had since I've been here. Not necessarily the best players, but the best team I've had."
As is the case in a lot of small towns, the Wildcats' success has uplifted the community. Shaw sees a lot of his former Rabun County teammates at the games, supporting the team. And in some ways, the Wildcats are helping the community beyond winning games.
"People have been given hope by the positive energy," Shaw said. "Things may not always be going good in life. People in the community are dealing with adversity and times can be tough. I'll have people say to me after the games that watching us gives them hope and something positive to look forward to. They appreciate Wildcat football. We're touching more than just the players and the school, but also the community."
Where Hapeville Charter's signature playoff win came at Benedictine, the Wildcats' also came in the quarterfinals, where they sent shockwaves across the state with a 56-14 win at No. 3 Screven County, an undefeated team that was projected to win by 6. That the Wildcats won wasn't as surprising as putting up 56 points against a Gamecocks defense that was one of the best in the state and had, at one point, a shutout streak of six consecutive games.
For the game, which was 200 miles away, they went down two days early to nearby Statesboro High, where they did a walkthrough before heading to Savannah State to tour its facilities.
"We were together for two days, which gave us a lot of energy and rest," Shaw said. "We felt like we had a great game plan, and maybe we exposed some weaknesses of theirs."
The Wildcats' historic run will end Saturday and for them to get this far is huge for Shaw, win or lose.
"For me, this is a dream come true," Shaw said of reaching the title game. "As an alumni, I feel so proud. We all have Wildcat pride, and it's truly a brotherhood amongst all of us in Rabun County. In my coaching career, to be able to do this at home with a program that has struggled, I'm just elated."
Reinforcing Gordon's claim that Hapeville Charter is always the underdog, the Wildcats are 3-point favorites according to Maxwell's projections. The teams have a common opponent in the B.E.S.T. Academy Eagles, who play in the Hornets' region. On Oct. 14, the Hornets beat the Eagles 49-0. In the second round of the playoffs, Rabun County beat them 35-2.
Projections and common opponents aside, there's no question Hapeville Charter has an edge talent-wise and Shaw knows that, but his team isn't deterred.
"We're playing an all-star team," he said. "They have D-I athletes all over the field. But at the end of the day, you have to play the game. Football is a crazy sport. The team that should win on paper doesn't always win. That's why you play. We feel like we've got a chance to win every time we play."
After watching film on the Hornets, he believes they look like the best defense they'll have played this season.
"That's not a knock on Brooks County or Screven County," Shaw said. "(The Hornets) have tremendous D-I talent and that presents some problems for us. They're big up front and have great technique, so it's not just a bunch of athletes. They're coached up and know how to play."
Fisher, who accounted for seven touchdowns against Screven County and scored two more last week in their 23-12 win over Brooks County, said the Wildcats have a chance if they can execute.
"They've got a bunch of studs and we know that," Fisher said. "We've got to take care of the ball and get some drives going. We'll have to do whatever we can and I'll have to get rid of the ball fast."
When Gordon looks at Rabun County, he sees the dual-threat dimension of Fisher as something that could keep the Hornets on their toes.
"They're a very talented team," Gordon said. "They have a better-than-average quarterback who I think throws an excellent ball and his mobility poses a problem. With any mobile quarterback, you have to corral them."
The Hornets, of course, have their own dual-threat in Williams. He'll be faced with the challenge of guiding the Hapeville offense past the No. 2 defense in AA.
"We respect them and we know our 11 have to beat their 11," Williams said.
For Shaw, the Hornets' offense is more complex than limiting Williams' dual-threat abilities.
"If you hog on the fact that he's a dual threat, he's surrounded by weapons," Shaw said. "We have to focus on our technique, read our keys and be aligned where we're supposed to. We've got to get to the ball and limit them in big plays, because they can run you out of the stadium on big plays. We have to make them earn it."
These two programs have a lot in common other than playing for their first state title. Both have dominant units on both sides of the ball, play in a spread offense with a dual-threat quarterback and play with a chip on their shoulders due to a perceived lack of respect.
"We're hungry for the win," Williams said. "We're never satisfied because our coaches don't let us get complacent. After we beat Benedictine, we celebrated on the bus ride home, but the very next day we were working on how we were going to defend (Heard County quarterback) Emory Jones. Our mindset is to win."
Though Hapeville Charter is just 25 minutes from Mercedes-Benz — Rabun County is 100 miles away — it's tough to say if proximity will create any type of home-field advantage.
"We only average about 400-500 fans a game," Gordon said. "It's not like we're expecting thousands of fans to show up. A lot of people still don't know about us but after this showing, everyone will know exactly who we are."
It's possible the Wildcats bring more fans to the game.
"Our pre-sale tickets have been unreal," Shaw said. "We'll have a showing from Rabun County, no problem. We'll have people coming who have just listened on the radio who want to see history in us being in the state title game. The whole community of Tiger is shutting down to be there for us at the Benz."
For Williams, being at the Benz will he a hard-earned first trip.
"I vowed never to go there until I played there," he said. "I wanted my first time there to be me playing. It's a blessing for us to get here, but we're not excited just to be here. We want to win."
Fisher expects a competitive game.
"I think it's going to be a dogfight," Fisher said. "It's going to come down to who plays better in all three phases and who takes care of the ball better. It's going to be a heck of a game and I'm excited.
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