It’s a shame that such a fantastic Class AAA high school football season ended on a sour note that will resonate for years to come. Fans on either side of the Calhoun-Peach County missed-call debacle are left wondering what woulda, coulda, shoulda been, and that should not be the case.
But the Class AAA season ended and a deserving champion was crowned. In fact, AAA was lucky to finish its season as the snow fell at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday. That classification and Class A-Private avoided the postponements and reschedules that jumbled the rest of the state.
All in all, it was an interesting end to the season. Yes, the missed call -- replays indicated that Peach County receiver Noah Whittington caught an apparent touchdown pass (ruled incomplete) with three minutes remaining in the game that would have given Peach the lead -- has created heated controversy across the state. Peach County school officials filed a formal appeal and will meet with GHSA officials in Thomaston on Monday to plead their case. The fans want co-champion status or to return the teams to a field, reverse the call and play the final three minutes.
It won't happen. But, it's worth noting that the Class AAA title game was awash with missed calls.
Peach County fans recall the first interception in the game, Antonio Gilbert's second of the year, where the ball clearly bounced to the turf before being scooped by a Calhoun defender. Calhoun fans will also point to missed calls on two fumbles that gave the ball back to the Trojans. They'll also argue that the Peach receiver stepped out of bounds, then came back onto the field of play to make the catch, thus making him ineligible. Peach counters that its receiver was forced out of bounds, thus a legal catch.
If there was ever a game that needed instant replay, it was this one. But that is a different can of worms that will be opened eventually.
No doubt, it's a mess. But lost in that mess is how Calhoun spent back-to-back weekends stopping two of the most productive offenses in the state.
The old saying of “defense wins championships” is about as over-used as "Friday night lights," but it doesn’t make any less true what Calhoun was able to accomplish with its defense. The Yellow Jackets allowed just 12 points in the final two games of the season against two of the highest-scoring offenses in the state to win the Class AAA title in a fashion that only Calhoun could pull off.
In the semifinals, the Jackets, who were all but written off by nearly everyone in the state, moved through a defending champion Cedar Grove team that was on the business end of the longest winning streak in school history (23). Cedar Grove, which averages 42.3 points per game, managed just six points.
Hal Lamb’s program then turned its sights toward a Peach County team that had been heralded as arguably the best team all season. The Trojans came in to the final averaging 45.7 points a game. They managed six against Calhoun.
Lamb now has won three state titles at Calhoun – 2011, 2014 and 2017. Before the season, he made a statement about his team that now seems prophetic ... maybe moreso than he would like. As I was leaving the Corky Kell luncheon in August, I called Lamb and in the course of the conversation, I asked if his team had enough to go all the way.
“We still have a ways to go, obviously,” he said. “But I like where we are right now. But, yeah, I think we have a chance late in the season. If we can stay healthy, you know, and the ball has to bounce the right way. We have to get better, and if those things happen we have a chance.”
Aside from the title-game controversy, the AAA season played out like most expected. Peach entered the season ranked No. 1 and was followed by Greater Atlanta Christian, Calhoun, Cedar Grove and Westminster. By the second week, Cedar Grove jumped Calhoun, and after a loss to Class AAAA championship contender Blessed Trinity, Westminster fell to sixth and Crisp County climbed up to fifth. During the ensuing weeks, the rumblings below the top-four – Peach, Cedar Grove, GAC and Calhoun – were rarely felt.
Entering the playoffs, each bracket quadrant had its heavyweight, and by the time the final four teams were decided, the top-four rankings held true.
And, in the end, Calhoun was No. 1, healthy .... and the ball is still bouncing.