In this season's Class AA tournament, a lot of pivotal matchups featured teams that'd never faced each other due to the new GHSA reclassification alignment. That's not the case in the title game matchup between the top-ranked Benedictine Cadets and No. 2-ranked Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane. On Saturday, 1 p.m. at the Georgia Dome, the two powerhouses will meet in the playoffs for the third time in the past four years. Only this time the AA championship is on the line.
Fresh in the minds of both programs is the last time the two met. In last season's quarterfinals in Savannah, the Purple Hurricane used a dominating second half to run away with the game, 54-28, ending the Cadets' hopes of consecutive AA titles and a 15-0 season. In 2013, it was the Cadets who rolled to a dominating win of 51-7 over Fitzgerald in the second round, again in Savannah.
With the all-time series knotted at 1-1, the tiebreaker will be played on a neutral sight and the stakes couldn't be higher. For the Cadets (14-0, No. 1 seed from Region 2), a win would mean their second AA title in three years and the first 15-0 season in program history. For the Purple Hurricane (13-1, No. 1, R1), a win would mean their first title since 1948, when they won Class A.
The Purple Hurricane came so close to a title last season, when they were eliminated in the AA title game by Pace Academy. Ending 2015 on a losing note is what's driving the Purple Hurricane to finish the drill this year, said Purple Hurricane senior running back and AJC Super 11 selection JD King.
"Really, (last season's title game loss) kind of helped us," said King, who is committed to Oklahoma State, and who surpassed 5,000 all-time rushing yards earlier in the season. "Everyone knows what happened and how we performed that day. If you ask me, we didn't play our best. You can't just show up (to the championship), you've got to compete. Everyone is there for a reason, and that's because they did a lot of things right.
"We use last season as motivation in practice and we know we've got to take advantage."
Speaking of motivation, the Cadets have a chance at redemption for Fitzgerald bringing their 2015 season to a screeching halt. Cadets quarterback Nick Iannone, a junior and second-year starter, said last year's playoff loss humbled the team.
"We had won it the year before and then went 12-0," Iannone said. "Whether you like it or not, some (players) get complacent. But that loss turned a switch for us. We don't take anything for granted, whether we're playing one of the best teams or worst teams. ...That loss has been motivating us to work the hardest we can this week in practice to play the best game, to give us the best shot."
The work Benedictine has put in all season long has yielded results on the field. The Cadets sought challenges at the front end of their schedule with non-region opponents. Their season opener was at home against Glynn Academy, which at the time was AAAAAA's No. 2 team. The Cadets beat them 24-7. For their next game, the Cadets traveled to Atlanta to play St. Pius X, ranked No. 6 in AAAA. Heading into that game, Benedictine was 1-13-1 against metro Atlanta's Catholic schools, with the lone win coming in 1946 over Marist. The Cadets would beat St. Pius X 21-7 in what ended up being their closest game to date.
It's been smooth sailing for the Cadets ever since, at least in terms of games played. They suffered through a rough patch when Hurricane Matthew rolled through Savannah, which caused them to postpone their homecoming game and miss a week of practice. But they came off the layoff to beat Toombs County 43-13. For the season, they've outscored opponents by an average of 43.7-13 and that includes the playoffs, where no one has come close to threatening them. They beat Glenn Hills 58-7 in the first round, Banks County 49-0 in the second round, No. 6 Peperrell 51-13 in the quarterfinals and No. 3 Callaway 49-10 in the semifinals.
Aside from Hurricane Matthew, an off-the-field challenge, the Cadets have yet to endure in-game adversity this season. Could that be a disadvantage for them heading into Saturday?
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a concern," said coach Danny Britt, now in his sixth season leading the Cadets. "We've played some good teams, but for the most part a lot of our guys haven't been playing past the third quarter since the beginning of the year. But it is what it is, we'll go out and do the best we can against a Fitzgerald team where we know it's going to take four quarters to come away with a win."
Iannone is confident his team will be ready for a close game.
"I would say it would be a discomfort if we were a bunch of young guys," Iannone said. "But a lot of us are two-, three-year starters who have been in those situations. We lost a close game to GAC (24-21 in 2014) and then beat them in the championship game (45-21) and in double overtime the next season (47-44). So we are seasoned in that aspect, we feel. Even though we won some of these games with big scores, we had to deal with adversity early in those games. Things like momentum swings and penalties racking up against us. So I feel confident in our seniors and juniors.
"Our coaches get on us enough, so I don't think there will be a moment that is too big for us."
The Purple Hurricane have had a similar season to Benedictine, especially when it comes to dominating the playoffs. Fitzgerald beat Dublin 42-7 in the first round, Rockmart 48-21 in the second round, No. 4 Rabun County 35-16 in the quarterfinals and No. 10 Hapeville Charter 42-21 in the semifinals.
However, there is one blemish on the Purple Hurricane's record: a 35-28 defeat at the hands of AAAAAAA's Tift County. In that game, they were behind two scores midway through the fourth quarter but staged a comeback and tied the game on Malik Balom's 61-yard fumble return with 3:15 remaining. But Tift would add the game's final score on its next drive.
"You certainly want a situation where you can be certain how they'll respond to adversity," said Purple Hurricane coach Jason Strickland, now in his fifth season at Fitzgerald. "But I'd rather be undefeated right now."
The Purple Hurricane surely responded to the adversity and are now riding a nine-game win streak into the Dome. In addition to King, the offense is led by dual-threat quarterback James Graham, a junior. They execute their offense mostly out of the Wing-T shotgun and are effective in both the running and passing games, but for Strickland it all comes back to King.
"I could throw out stats of his," said Strickland, which he said includes more than 5,700 rushing yards, 6,600 total yards and 70-plus touchdowns. "But what he's been is the best football player I've ever coached. He does it all the right way. He's fantastic in the school building and he's a high character guy.
"Go back to (longtime Charlton County coach Rich McWorter, whom Strickland was an assistant under), who I consider my big brother, and he said if you can get your best player to be your hardest worker, you've got a chance to be good."
The Cadets will try to counter King and the Fitzgerald offense out of their 4-3, Cover 2 base led by Chris Harris, Adam King and Noah Johnson. On offense, they'll rely on their spread Wing T formation and Iannone, John Wesley Kennedy, Tyleek Collins and Terrick Smalls.
Both teams will be rested and ready, leaving for Atlanta on Friday following a Benedictine practice and a Fitzgerald walk-through. Although the previous matchups between Benedictine and Fitzgerald have resulted in lopsided games, neither side is expecting a repeat of last year.
"(Benedictine) is a different football team," Strickland said. "They're a well-oiled machine and they're so much better defensively than last year. Their offensive line looks like they're head and shoulders above last year. We're a different football team too."
King said he hears questions about whether Fitzgerald can pull of another win over Benedictine.
"Everyone's saying, 'you don't think you can do that again?," King said. "They have plenty of the same players. They got better. We got better, but we're not taking Benedictine lightly because they're a good team and they want revenge."
- Tuesday's "pre" preview of the Fitzgerald-Benedictine matchup, with prediction
- Championship game previews for all classifcations
- Maxwell semifinal projections
- How top-ranked Benedictine beat Hurricane Matthew
- Game story from last year's Fitzgerald-Benedictine quarterfinals matchup (via Savannah Morning News)
- Game story from first-ever Fitzgerald-Benedictine matchup in 2013, in the second round of the AA playoffs (via Savannah Morning News)
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