The 2016 Class AA football season came to an end on Saturday at the Georgia Dome, with the top-ranked Benedictine Cadets marching to a 49-26 victory over the No. 2 Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane. The win capped Benedictine's first 15-0 season in program history and it also marked the first time an AA champion posted an undefeated record since Calhoun in 2011.
It was perhaps the most eventful year for Benedictine football in program history. It began when, after it was learned the Cadets would remain a AA school after reclassification, their Region 2 counterparts vehemently opposed to them not moving out of the classification. Seven months later, their team was displaced by Hurricane Matthew. Then, last weekend at the Georgia Dome, they made work of their opponent with another double-digit victory, as were the previous 14 victories.
Dominant would be a word to describe this season's Cadets. Their closest game was 21-7. The most points they allowed came in a championship game they won by three scores. As a result, the Cadets have their second state title, with the first coming in 2014, and they've now won 35 of their last 36.
For more insight into the championship game, here are the official game stats, and below are transcripts of player and coach interviews following the game:
Benedictine's Jonah Griffin, who had the game-clinching interception:
On the season
"A lot of hard work and dedication. The hard work paid off. A lot of work, a lot of practice. Coach is always telling us to strive to be perfect and I'm just glad I got to help the seniors. It's good to know that I contributed greatly to this championship."
On the interception
"I scooted over a little bit, cheated over, saw him staring down the receiver, ran and picked it off.
John Wesley Kennedy, who had a combined 123 yards rushing and receiving and two touchdowns, one on a defensive pick-six:
On the pick-six
"There was just a lot going through my mind. I had a couple of fumbles earlier, so I just tried to stay focused and finish with my team...It was great knowing that I could put up more points for my team and put us ahead by more. And the defense...like they say, defense wins championships. So I'm glad the defense stepped up this game and was able to stop their offense.
On how they Cadets handled Fitzgerald's 20-0 run
"We were a little scared, but we knew the defense was going to handle their business and we just kept our cool."
On being a state champion again
"It's great just to go out my senior year with a bang, 15-0."
Cadets coach Danny Britt:
On the win
"Just a tremendous win for these guys. They've fought so hard and believed in what we're doing. Fitzgerald is an incredible team, a very talented team. I knew we were going to have to score points. I knew we weren't going to be able to keep them down like we did in the first half. So we fought back and came back really hard."
On Fitzgerald's 20-0 run
"I was obviously very concerned. I wasn't sure how we were going to stop some of the stuff they were doing offensively. Eventually I just told the guys it can't be scheme, it's got to come down to guys making plays and that's what we did."
Purple Hurricane coach Jason Strickland:
On the first half, which at one point saw them in a 35-6 hole
"Oh we discouraged. The biggest thing and our focus all year has been just play the next play. We came into halftime and took a look and said let's get back to the things that made us successful all year, which is trusting each other, reading our keys, making our block calls and communicating across the board. I think we got levelheaded there at halftime and came back out. Certainly proud of our effort in the second half. We came up short, I'm certainly disappointed in that, but I'm very proud of our guys and their effort."
On Benedictine's ability to stop the run in the first half after Fitzgerald's game-opening scoring drive
"No. 1 they're fantastic. They've got outstanding players. Phenomenal coaching. From our standpoint, we just weren't communicating. We didn't trust each other very well. But they're extremely well coached and they've got great football players and when you put the two together and they can win a bunch of football game."
On Fitzgerald's 2016 football season
"This is probably the best senior group that I've ever had. They have been such a shining example and a glow of positivity throughout the entire community. They've done everything the right way. This is the most deserving group of kids I've ever been around. It's been a great season, it really has. But it's been a great four-year run with this group of guys. I'm not sure we'll have to reinvent ourselves once they graduate, but we as coaches have been truly blessed by this group of kids."
Here's a look back at some of the more notable AA storylines from the season:
- The end of a remarkable prep career: Fitzgerald's JD King capped his senior season with nearly 6,000 rushing yards and led the Purple Hurricane to two consecutive title game appearances. While it would have been nice to see his career come to an end with at least one title ring, he can hold his head high knowing that he's one of the few who will continue his career at the next level with a major FBS football program. The AJC Super 11 selection is committed to play for Oklahoma State.
- Speaking of AJC Super 11 selections, Vidalia's Nate McBride will also be moving on to greener pastures. McBride is one of the country's top linebackers and will also play for a major FBS program next season, though he's uncommitted. He has also been selected to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
- Washington County got back on the winning track following last year's 5-6 record in AAA, which was the Golden Hawks' first losing season since 2007. They joined AA this year and went 5-1 in Region 3 play to win the league title and advanced to the second round.
- Screven County moved from Region 3 to Region 4 this season, and emerged as champions of the 11-team league, the largest in AA, by beating then-undefeated and No. 3-ranked Jefferson County in a game it was projected to lose by 21 points. That was just the beginning of what turned out to be a magical run for the Gamecocks, who came within seconds of reaching the semifinals.
- A Callaway team stacked with FBS prospects set a program record for wins and opened the season on a 13-game win streak before Benedictine knocked them out in the semifinals. The Cavaliers were the team that knocked Screven County out with a miraculous 99-yard drive in the game's final minutes for a dramatic one-point road win. Coming from AAA, they figure to be a perennial contender in AA.
- Region 6 was completely revamped by reclassification, and it wasn't clear how competitive it would be without the Atlanta private schools (GAC, Lovett, Westminster, Pace Academy) that dominated AA. As it turns out, holdovers Hapevile Charter, B.E.S.T. Academy and newcomer Douglass have carried the torch quite well, with Douglass advancing along with region champ Hapeville, which made it all the way to the semifinals.
- There was an unfortunate story to come out of Region 6, however, and that's KIPP Atlanta Collegiate's decision to forfeit its playoff game, which robbed Banks County of an opportunity to host its first home playoff game since 2011 and win its first playoff game in program history. The game was forfeited because of the actions of a few players following KIPP's regular season finale. Penalties were handed down by the GHSA on Thursday and could be made public as early as tomorrow.
- Pepperell joined Region 7 this season and won it, then advanced to the quarterfinals along with mainstay Chattooga to solidify the league. With Rockmart and Model also trending upward, the region should be competitive and in the championship discussion moving forward.
- It's beginning to look like Region 8 will be Rabun County's to lose moving forward as long as it remains in AA. Coach Lee Shaw has completely turned the program around since returning to his alma mater in 2012, when the Wildcats earned their first winnign season in more than a decade. He's improved the team's record every year since coming aboard and they finished 11-1 this season, reaching the quarterfinals. They'll return quarterback Bailey Fisher next year, who was one of the better signal callers in the state from a statistical standpoint.
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