The first round of the GHSA Football State Playoffs unfolds tomorrow night and this blog will take a look at each opening round matchup along some of the strengths and weaknesses shaping the AAAA bracket.
R6#3 Northwest Whitfield at R5#2 Cedartown
Northwest Whitfield was Monday night’s big winner in the three-team mini-playoff that determined the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds out of Region 6. The Bruins defeated Pickens 7-6 in Game 1 after stopping the Dragons’ go-ahead 2-point conversion attempt in the final minute. Pickens defeated Southeast Whitfield in the next game 7-0 to take the No. 4 seed, but that resulted in their first-round trip to two-time defending champion Cartersville. Northwest Whitfield defeated Oconee County 31-20 in last year’s first round action and advanced to the second round for the first time since 2007 in the process. Cedartown earned home field advantage in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 this year and its 9-1 regular season record marks the Bulldogs’ first winning season since current UGA running back Nick Chubb’s junior season at Cedartown in 2013. This success has come in Doyle Kelley’s first year as head coach of Cedartown. Kelley was named head coach last December after working at the school and in the Polk County School District for 31 years. “I’ve been committed to these kids for so long, and now I have a chance to really build something good here,” Kelley told the Polk County Standard Journal after accepting the job. “I’m going to put my entire heart and soul into making the Cedartown Bulldogs the program that people can be proud of in our community.” So far, so good coach Kelley.
R8#4 Madison County at R7#1 Marist
Tomorrow night, the Madison County Red Raiders will play their first playoff game since the 2006 season. This 11-year playoff drought will be broken against the classification’s most familiar playoff program, Marist, which has made the playoffs 35 straight seasons and enters the postseason 10-0 for the first time since the 2000 season. Marist was eliminated in last year’s first round by Sandy Creek 23-20 and the War Eagles have played with that chip on their shoulders all year. With wins over Lovett, Baylor (TN), St. Pius, Woodward Academy, Gainesville and Blessed Trinity this year, Marist is battle tested, motivated and playing their best football in years.
R2#3 Spalding at R1#2 Cairo
Spalding’s playoff run last year will be motivation for this tough opening round matchup with Cairo. The Jaguars took the No. 3 seed into last year’s playoffs and proceeded to knock off Eastside, and Ridgeland on the road to advance to the state quarterfinals where state finalist Thomson advanced with a 30-7 win. Cairo entered the postseason with the No. 1 seed and held off Sandy Creek 10-7 in the second round before falling 17-13 to Jefferson in the quarters. This year, the quarterfinalists will square off in the first round for the second time in three seasons. In 2015, the programs also met in the first round where they faced off for first time in program history. Cairo took a 27-10 victory.
R4#4 Salem at R3#1 Burke County
Salem takes a 6-4 record into the postseason, guaranteeing its second winning season in the last eight years. You would have to go back to the 2005 season for the last time Salem won a playoff game and Friday’s trip to undefeated Burke County will be hard to change that. Burke County has reached the playoffs in each of head coach Eric Parker’s 11 seasons and has added a state championship (2011) and 15 postseason victories to his 101-32 record at the school.
R5#3 Troup at R6 #2 Heritage-Catoosa
Heritage-Catoosa reached the playoffs for the first time in program history last year and finished with a school-record eight wins (8-4) after advancing past Stephens County in the first round (37-30) and falling to Mary Persons (38-21) in the second round. The Generals have continued to build upon that success in E.K. Slaughter’s fourth year at the school and will host their first playoff game while wearing a school-record 9-1 record. Troup is one of the most explosive teams in the classification with a 38.8 points per game average, but the high-flying Generals have posted a school-record 41.4 points per game and are also equipped for a winner-take-all shootout.
R7#4 West Hall at R8#1 St. Pius
West Hall has five-straight years of playoff appearances in addition to the thrilling 24-21 victory over Troup in last year’s opening round. The Spartans will have to use that experience to orchestrate the effort it will take against a surging St. Pius team. The Golden Lions rebounded from a 0-5 start to the season with a perfect 5-0 region run and are in the playoffs for the 12th straight year. This will be the first-ever meeting for the teams.
R1#3 Northside-Columbus at R2#2 West Laurens
Northside-Columbus takes an 8-2 record into its trip to 5-5 West Laurens and should have plenty of confidence as the No. 3 seed coming out of the classification’s largest region. The Patriots were competitive in their only two losses (21-17 to Americus-Sumter, 35-31 to Cairo) this season and could probably be considered the most dangerous No. 3 seed in this year’s AAAA playoffs.
R3#4 Richmond Academy at R4#1 Woodward Academy
Richmond Academy will have to find its footing defensively against Region 4 champion Woodward Academy. The Musketeers have given up a combined 129 points in their last two losses (60-20 Burke County, 69-34 Thomson), while Woodward Academy’s offense lit up the scoreboards for 49.6 points per game the second half of the season.
R8#3 Oconee County at R7#2 Blessed Trinity
Oconee County will look for a postseason reset after dropping three of its last four games of the regular season, but that is not the case of Blessed Trinity. The 8-2 Titans missed out on the top seed by just one point after dropping a 25-24 region matchup with Marist on Oct. 20. That may end up costing them since now a first round win would likely just be a trip to take on mighty Cartersville in the second round. Regardless of who Blessed Trinity is playing, its past two playoff heartbreaks will be a strong motivating factor. Blessed Trinity fell in an excruciating 38-31 overtime loss to Westminster in the 2015 state championship and then suffered a 28-27 loss to Mary Persons in the 2016 quarterfinals. Expect Blessed Trinity’s young cast of playmakers and aggressive defense to come out hungry in the first round.
R6#4 Pickens at R5#1 Cartersville
Top-ranked Cartersville opened last year’s playoffs with a 77-14 win over Chestatee and closed it with a 58-7 blowout over Thomson in the state championships. As scary as the Hurricanes were to opponents last postseason and throughout this current 40-game winning streak, this year might be the most unstoppable Cartersville team yet. Led by the state’s all-time record holder for career yardage and touchdown passes, Trevor Lawrence, Cartersville remains an enigma in an otherwise competitive classification. The team has outscored its Class AAAA opponents 329-26 this season, an incredible 50.5 average margin of victory. Pickens gave up 59 points in last year’s first-round loss to Jefferson and will more than likely have an even tougher time stopping Cartersville this Friday.
R4#3 North Clayton at R3#2 Thomson
Thomson rebounded from a 27-24 loss to Burke County on Oct. 27 by pummeling Richmond Academy 69-34 last Friday. North Clayton is in the playoffs as the No. 3 seed with a 4-6 record and has only scored 87 points this season. Thomson’s 40.7 points per game will be matched up with the Eagles’ 8.7 points per game.
R2#4 Howard at R1#1 Americus-Sumter
Howard will play its first-ever playoff game against an Americus-Sumter team that clinched the program’s first-ever region title and first eight-win season this year. The chance to add to that history will follow Americus-Sumter into by far the toughest draw out of any of the region winners. Howard is not only a tough No. 4 seed, but the Panthers must face the Huskies in the same quadrant of the bracket that houses Thomson, Cartersville and Blessed Trinity.
R7#3 White County at R8#2 Jefferson
White County’s trip to Jefferson presents an intriguing matchup between first-year coaches. Gene Cathcart’s playoff debut with Jefferson comes against a White County team that rebounded from a 1-9 finish a year ago to the 7-3 regular season produced this year in Tim Cokely’s debut.
R5#4 Chapel Hill at R6#1 Ridgeland
Chapel Hill’s 35-32 win over Sandy Creek this season was ultimately the Panthers’ ticket into the postseason, but now the 10-0 Ridgeland Panthers await and Chapel Hill has to shake off the 47-14 loss to Cedartown that closed the season last Friday. Ridgeland has given up just 7.7 points season, but the Panthers looked dominant last year too before falling 38-21 to No. 3 seed Spalding. Ridgeland has posted just one playoff win since reaching the Class AAAA finals in 2012 and could find the spark that has been missing in this battle of Panthers.
R3#3 Baldwin at R4#2 Eastside
Each of Baldwin’s four losses this season came to quality opponents (Griffin, Evans, Thomson, Burke County), but Eastside is also tough and qualified and is coming fresh off its best regular season finish since 2009. This is Jesse Hicks first year as Baldwin head coach and it will also be the first time that the Braves and Eastside have ever faced, so game plans and in-game adjustments could even this contest out.
R1#4 Carver-Columbus at R2#1 Mary Persons
In addition to the program’s long tradition of winning, Carver-Columbus’ 3-7 regular season had moments that showed why the Tigers are a dangerous No. 4 seed despite their record. After opening the season 0-4 under first-year head coach Calvin Arnold, the Tigers were able to win 4-of-7 games to fight their way into the playoffs for a twelfth-straight year. Mary Persons clinched the region title with an unimpressive 17-14 win over Howard last Friday and will be looking to advance past the first round for a seventh straight season.