Every Thursday, Class AA blogger Adam Krohn will preview a game of the week (GOTW).
Rabun County Wildcats at White County Warriors
When, where: Friday, 7:30 p.m. at White County Stadium
Records, rankings: Rabun County is 2-0 and ranked No. 5 in Class AA; White County is 3-0 and unranked in AAAA.
Last meeting: Rabun County won 49-7 in 2016.
Maxwell’s projection: Rabun County by 20
Although last season's matchup between the White County Warriors and Rabun County was a 49-7 Wildcats blowout, neither team is expecting Friday's game to be lopsided. And that's not just cliched coach speak — the Warriors are much improved under long-time veteran coach Tim Cokely, who's in his first season at White County after spending the past 22 years building up high school programs in Georgia and Florida.
Cokely has six Florida state championships and a 188-73 career record that includes stints with GAC and Colquitt County. So far he has White County off to a 3-0 start after going 1-9 and 3-7 the previous two seasons under Bill Ballard. The Warriors opened the season with a 33-0 shutout of Franklin County, followed by a 66-14 win over Lumpkin County. Last Friday they edged Habersham Central 24-21.
The Warriors were 0-3 against those teams last season, but Cokely said he can only speak to the team he has this year.
"I don't think I can compare seasons' past because I wasn't here," Cokely said. "This team is pretty good on offense, pretty good on defense and we have a really good kicker so that makes us a tough out. We're not going to dominate anyone anytime soon but we can play well with them. We hustle, we do the little things and that's who we are this year. We're a good team that's well-rounded and enjoys playing."
As Cokely works to turn the Warriors' program around, Wildcats coach Lee Shaw has been there and done that. When he returned to Rabun County — his alma mater where he quarterbacked the Wildcats in the 1980s — in 2012 after a successful, 10-season run at Flower Branch, the Wildcats were in rough shape. They were coming off a 3-7 season preceded by four straight 1-9 finishes and hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 2000. They went 6-5 in Shaw's first year and have improved every season since, going 11-1 last year to reach the quarterfinals for the second time in a row.
Now in his sixth season in Tiger, Shaw has perhaps his best Rabun County team yet, led by three-year starter Bailey Fisher executing the spread option offense Shaw has become known for with other quarterbacks — most notably his son Connor Shaw, the former South Carolina Gamecocks starter who now plays for the Chicago Bears.
"Bailey understands the offense inside out and he's an extremely talented, dual-threat kid," Shaw said. "He knows how to get the ball to our playmakers and this is probably the best unit of receivers I've had since I've been here with (Cole Keener, Braxton Hicks, Austin Jones, Chase Horton and Dillyn Nichols)."
Fisher and the Wildcats will no doubt be the toughest competition the Warriors have faced so far. They've put up 90 points in just two games with wins over Mount Pisgah (62-21) and Stephens County (28-6). Fisher is a senior whose strong start coupled with consistent play over the years has him currently ranked as the No. 5 player in the state on the AJC's Player of the Year Watch.
Fisher notes the Warriors' improvement but doesn't discount his team's prowess.
"They're much improved," Fisher said of the Warriors. "They'll be a lot better and more physical. They've got a good running back (Kaleb Crane) and I expect it to be a good game. But we should be alright as long as we're able to execute."
Both teams acknowledge the significance of the rivalry, which is expected to bring a sellout crowd to Cleveland. Rabun County leads the all-time series 25-10. Lee Shaw coached White County from 1995-99 and went 0-2 against the Wildcats in that time. Shaw is 5-2 all-time against White County between Flowery Branch and Rabun County, including 1-0 with the Wildcats (last season's win).
"I'm new to White County but these home games have been something and I know we'll be playing in front of a full stadium," Cokely said. "We've been playing Rabun County for a long time, so there will be a lot of energy and excitement. I think the teams are evenly matched, so who wins will be the team that executes."
Correction: This story has been updated with White County's correct team nickname, the Warriors.
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