It took an extra week, but the Class AA football season came to an end on Friday when the Hapeville Charter Hornets traveled to Tiger and defeated the Rabun County Wildcats 35-23 in the championship, capturing their first state title in their seventh season as a program.
With the win, the Hornets top the final state rankings, with the Wildcats taking No. 2. Here are those rankings:
1. Hapeville Charter (14-1)
2. Rabun County (14-1)
3. Benedictine (12-1)
4. Heard County (12-2)
5. Thomasville (12-1)
6. Screven County (11-1)
7. Brooks County (11-2)
8. Dodge County (10-1)
9. Toombs County (10-2)
10. Callaway (11-2)
There were numerous storylines that made the 2017 AA season what it was. Here is a look at the highlights:
The Hornets earn their respect
Heading into the season, Hapeville Charter was coming off a semifinals trip in its first-ever playoff appearance and, with more all-state selections than any team in AA, was trending nowhere but up — and fast.
The Hornets' potential as presented on paper immediately lived up to its billing on the field with a season-opening win over Fitzgerald — the team that eliminated them in the '16 semifinals — and then they traveled to Alabama and nearly beat one of state's top teams in its highest classification, Thompson, narrowly losing 21-20. From there, they ripped off 13 consecutive wins to close out the season.
In the process, they scheduled and dominated former Region 6 foes Pace Academy and Wesleyan, outscoring them a combined 72-3. They also dominated their current 6-AA competition, shutting them out three times and winning by an average of 42.5 to 2.5. But their most impressive work came in the playoffs, where they opened with a 24-0 shutout of Spencer and then crushed Elbert County 56-10, setting the stage for the most anticipated quarterfinals matchup in the state — a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown against Benedictine.
All season long, the Hornets played second fiddle to the Cadets, who were the defending state champs and on a 27-game win streak. They seemed to take their No. 2 ranking personally, jumping to a 21-0 lead and running to a 31-17 victory. It was the first of what would be three consecutive road games to close out the playoffs. The next came against Emory Jones and Heard County, which they won 28-21.
The title game was never really a contest after Christopher Smith ended Rabun County's game-opening drive with an interception in the end zone for a touchback. They took a 21-3 lead into halftime and never looked back.
They graduate 25 seniors from this year's squad but that doesn't matter at the moment. The only thing that matters is the Hapeville Charter Hornets are the 2017 Class AA champions.
Rabun County continues its ascent
The Rabun County Wildcats have somehow managed to improve every season under coach Lee Shaw, who arrived in 2012. That season, they went 6-5, followed by 8-3, 9-3, 11-2, 11-1 and 14-1 this season. There's only one way to improve on their 2017 record: a 15-0 season.
Regardless of what their future holds, 2017 will always stand out. The Wildcats scored more points than any team in the state and had AA's second-best defense, behind only Hapeville Charter. They produced an AJC Player of the Year candidate in quarterback Bailey Fisher. In the quarterfinals and on the road, they put up 56 points on a No. 3-ranked Screven County team that came in undefeated, had posted six consecutive shutouts and gave up an average of just 5.8 points during the regular season.
Thomasville shatters its own record book
Zach Grage has breathed new life into a storied Bulldogs program in just his second season at the helm. After leading Thomasville to a 5-5 record and playoff appearance in 2016, he entered this season with lofty expectations for the Bulldogs and they lived up to them.
Not only did they win 12 straight games, they set school records for most points scored (522), passing yards in a season (J.T. Rice, 2,665), passing touchdowns in a regular season (Rice, 19), passing yards in a game (Rice, 428), longest touchdown reception (Rice to Kevon Shy, 91 yards) and longest field goal (57 yards, Carl Blackmore).
Rockmart captures first region title in nearly three decades
Heading into the season, the last time the Yellow Jackets had one a league title was in 1989. They ended that streak by going 7-0 in Region 7, dominating opponents with a 45.4 point scoring average. The points barrage carried into the playoffs, where they defeated Monticello 47-7 and nearly upset No. 10 Callaway, falling just short in a 40-35 defeat.
The Jackets have posted consecutive 9-3 seasons under second-year coach Biff Parson, who led Rockmart out of a streak of three losing seasons.
Toombs County is back on the map
The Bulldogs finished 10-2 and inside the top 10 in Richie Marsh's second season as coach. The win total was their highest since 2000, when, during the Mark Stroud era, they had five double-digit win seasons from 1994 to 2000. They also notched their first playoff win since 2008, defeating Fitzgerald 34-31.
And that's it for the 2017 football season. Moving forward, this blog space will cover Class AA basketball, beginning with the Top 5 teams to watch.
Follow the AJC’s Class AA coverage on Twitter.