The 2016 season is in the books, and a first time champion, Cedar Grove, has been crowned.
The Saints overcame a strong Greater Atlanta Christian program in the final game of the season in the Georgia Dome to win 30-19. The Saints' victory was the 10th in a row after losing to Westminster 42-21 on Sept. 23 .
"The guys had a great summer and worked real hard, but we weren't a team yet," said Cedar Grove coach Jimmy Smith. "As the season went on, we grew as a team. I think the Westminster game really made us realize we needed to focus more and work a little harder on details. From there we kind of started getting better and better every week and peaked at the right time."
Many will say that the 2016 season was predictable. Most of the teams ranked at the beginning of the season were the same teams ranked in the final poll. But there were highs for several programs, and some very unexpected lows:
-- Hurt at the beginning, hurt at the end: The No. 1 consensus quarterback in the nation, Davis Mills, suffered a knee injury before the first game of the season, and it was thought that he might not return until the playoffs. The Spartans put Jonathan Rose, a linebacker, at quarterback and won their first two games, 31-6 against a ranked Lovett program and 19-16 in overtime against defending champion Westminster.
Mills, who recovered much faster than expected, returned for the third game of the season. In a nationally televised game against Valor Christian in Colorado, the Spartans lost 21-17. It was the only loss until the title game.
Six plays into the championship game, Mills re-injured his knee when he made a cut while scrambling and was hit by Cedar Grove's Jadon Haselwood. We will never know how much Mills would have factored in the outcome.
-- Tragedy strikes Peach County: On Saturday Aug. 20 , the Trojans football team organized a get-together for players and coaches at a pool in Byron as a way to relax before their first game against Jake Fromm and the Houston County Bears. As the festivities winded down, a group of four players left in an SUV driven by Raekwon Smith for the 13-mile trip to Fort Valley. A few minutes after leaving, Smith lost control of the vehicle on a winding country road between Byron and Fort Valley. The wreck claimed Smith's life and left another teammate, Randolph Williams, paralyzed.
Tim Wilson, a Peach fan who attended his 500th consecutive game during the semifinals, said that Peach coach Chad Campbell stepped up as a father figure and leader in the time of need.
"Before the season, we had a tragedy where we lost one of our players and another is paralyzed ... it was terrible," said Wilson. "But to see the community rally around the team and how Chad Campbell handled the situation ... amazing. Chad is more than just a football coach. We saw him as a leader who helped bring the community together."
Peach reached the semifinals in 2016, but the season became more than about winning.
-- Game of the year: Some would probably say the final game of the season would take this honor, but it is hard to argue with the triple overtime 44-38 outcome in Hinesville between GAC and Liberty County in the quarterfinals. The teams finished regulation tied at 38, and there was a lot on the line. GAC had not lost to a team in Georgia all season, and Liberty County was looking for its first trip to the semifinals in program history. After two overtime periods, Mills and the Spartans took control. Mills passed to Trent Fowler for a 23-yard touchdown for the victory.
-- Three big changes: During the season, several coaches were asked about the biggest changes they have seen since their playing days. Their replies are worth another look:
Pace Academy coach Chris Slade: "The biggest difference I've seen is that social media has taken over a lot of the recruiting. Where as 25 years ago you still had rules, you still had dead periods, times when the coaches could and could not call you. But now, there are so many ways to reach out to kids. Back then (a coach) either went by the high school or you called the player on their home phone. If you didn't want to talk to the coach, an answering machine would pick up. But now they can (direct message) you; they can tweet you; there are so many different avenues. In my opinion, recruiting has gotten a little diluted. Just because, now you can send over a five-minute highlight reel and get an offer. So in other words, I think a lot of guys are overrated, and a lot are under-evaluated."
Westminster coach Gerry Romberg: "There are so many more distractions now for kids since I first started. The whole college recruiting process has changed it so much. When I first started, kids went to the school where they lived. You didn't see the recruiting and the kids transferring to other schools. And you have the 7-on-7 programs and all the AAU stuff, not just football, but across the board in all sports. And there were more kids who wanted to play high school football just to play high school football. Now it's to put themselves into position to get into college or play in college."
Lovett coach Mike Muschamp: "I think the level of emphasis that people place on it now is different than it was when I first got into it. And don't get me wrong, it was extremely important and we did a lot of the same kind of things that we do now. But the publicity around it and the recruiting aspect of it has dramatically changed the landscape of it. It's happening so much faster now. You have kids who haven't taken a snap of high school football that are getting offers from Division 1 colleges. That was unheard of in 1987, when I started. The emphasis placed on those types of things has changed it rather quickly. You start looking at where we are now from where we were even 10 years ago. Its just the trickle-down from college to high school."
Peach County coach Chad Campbell: "Kids have changed a lot. They are just not as tough as they used to be. They watch TV. You know, I think it all comes from NFL, college and trickles down. And then, with all the technology over the past 20 years, kids would rather stay home and play video games or be on the phone or Facebook. Kids are just not brought up to be as tough anymore. Back in the day, my generation and the generations before me, there wasn't anything to do but play ball and work. That is probably the most that's changed. And also, you didn't hear about this back in the day, kids moving schools and transfers and all that. That's where I think social media has taken over. People think they can get their kids recruited here or there. There is no loyalty to schools or where you grew up, and that's another thing."
So now, it's on to basketball.