The countdown to Region 1 continues. This week, I’m highlighting Region 3. Links from each of the previous region previews will be provided in each upcoming preview.
Region 3 shrunk down to five teams after the departure of Hephzibah, which was dropped two classes to Class AA’s Region 4 after the mid-point reclassification cycle. Burke County’s Eric Parker is entering his 12th season as Bears head coach, and led the program to the sixth region title of his tenure last season with a 12-1 overall record. This small region is filled with competitive programs, bitter rivals and a strong collection of coaches familiar with both their communities and the high quality of competition they’ll have to face each season. The result should be a challenging region for the rest of the classification to cross paths with come playoff time.
Region 3: Baldwin, Burke County, Cross Creek, Richmond Academy, Thomson
Defending region champion Burke County joined Cartersville, Ridgeland and Marist as one of the classification’s four teams that went undefeated in the 2017 regular season. The Bears met rival Thomson on Oct. 27, who was also undefeated at the time, and used a narrow 27-24 victory to improve to 9-0, serve the Bulldogs their first loss of the season and ultimately take the top seed into the playoffs. This season, Burke County will need to replace quarterback Damari Kelly, who signed a scholarship to play wide receiver at Coastal Carolina next fall. Head coach Eric Parker is one of the state’s highest paid coaches and has earned his keep by establishing a culture of winning and maximizing the talent on his rosters annually. Expect an exciting and versatile group of playmakers to once again lead the Bears in 2018.
Thomson had to find a replacement for head coach Rob Ridings this offseason, who (like Americus-Sumter head coach Erik Soliday) retired as a public school teacher this spring, taking the defensive coordinator position at Prince Avenue Christian. Thomson, which made it to the 2015 state finals game, has brought in a former Burke County Bear player and Burke County coach to lead the program next fall. Michael Youngblood, a 1998 Burke County grad and Parker’s defensive coordinator on the Bears’ 2011 state championship team, recently held the same position at Ware County under former Burke County assistant and current Gators head coach Franklin Stephens. Youngblood has 14-plus years of coaching experience and has been a state championship coordinator for Tucker in addition to Burke County. He is the Burke County record holder for most receiving yards in a game/ season/ career, most field goals in a season, longest punt return, most interceptions in a game (among others), and was a member of two national championship teams while playing collegiately at Georgia Southern.
“I’ve always thought highly of Thomson High School,” the former Burke County standout told the The Augusta Chronicle, adding that he received several congratulatory calls from Burke County about taking the job, even though it’s at the rival Thomson. “There’s something special about that black and gold when you put it on. It’s a great atmosphere here. It’s electric. I’m looking for those Friday nights and working with this community, working with these football players.”
Burke County will close its regular season at Thomson on Oct. 26, in what should be one of the biggest region games of the 2018 season anywhere in the classification. It will be the 35th all-time meeting between the schools, with Burke County’s 27-24 victory last year tilting the all-time series 18-16 in favor of the Bears. Thomson will conclude its regular season slate the following week at Richmond Academy.
Jesse Hix’s second stint at Baldwin began last year and produced a 7-5 record; Hicks was previously head coach of Baldwin from 2002-09 before spending two seasons at Dougherty and leading Central-Macon from 2012-16. He has now led Baldwin to the playoffs in eight of his nine years at the school. Baldwin loses wide receiver Jatavious Harris, a 6-foot-2 Louisville signee. The Braves have a solid lineup of non-region challenges before region play begins, which should provide a lot of perspective for the only team from Region 3 that came remotely close to offering challenges for Burke County (32-14) and Thomson (21-7). Baldwin’s non-region tour includes Washington County, Jones County, Veterans, Warner Robins, Northside-Warner Robins and Greenrbrier before its region opener at Richmond Academy on Oct. 5.
Richmond Academy took the No. 4 seed last year in Lyle Burns first year at the helm. The top 3 seeds from Region 3 all advanced past the first round last year, and although the Musketeers fell 48-35 to Region 4 champion Woodward Academy in the first round, the competitiveness of the game against the heavily favored War Eagles was proof of the region’s depth and the Musketeers’ belief in themselves. It was the first time that Richmond Academy made the playoffs in six years and they went into the half trailing just 35-28 after Woodward Academy used a 70-yard kickoff return touchdown and a late touchdown pass from Mike Wright to Dacori Collins to provide the 7-point cushion. Richmond Academy’s defense tightened up in the second half, holding Woodward Academy to a pair of third quarter field goals and a 1-yard touchdown run by Region 4-AAAA Player of the Year Tahj Gary in the final quarter. Leading Richmond Academy’s offense was quarterback Mason Cobb, who will be back in 2018 for his senior season. The 5-foot-5 quarterback is most effective when rolling out and is able to throw on the run across his body, giving coach Burns an offense capable of sparking big plays in the passing game. Cobb is comfortable in his leadership role and when he starts to heat up, there is accuracy and touch on his passes. There is also a great understanding between Cobb and his receivers, who do an excellent job getting open when he is on the move, and creating a variety of options for Cobb to survey while on the run. The offense also has the ability to attack defenses out of the shotgun and on quick throws, where Cobb is effective in both delivering to a spot on quick slants, or lobbing out a short fade down the sideline for his receivers to chase down off the line of scrimmage.
After reaching the playoffs in 2016, Cross Creek was swept clean by Region 3 in 2017. It was the first season for head coach Tavis Cummings, who stepped in for Robert McCarty after four seasons. Cummings served on McCarty’s staff and was also the head baseball coach for the Razorbacks. Cummings opted to retain his duty as head baseball coach and is one of the few dual sport head coaches in the state. Cummings served as a defense coordinator prior to becoming head coach and both the defense and offense will need to see improvements before next year begins. In 2017, the defense gave up 33.3 ppg and the insufficient 10.3 ppg put up by the offense left a wide 23-point average margin of victory. Cross Creek will rely on its running game as much as it can, but needs to establish balance in its attack, or passing downs will continue to be a gamble and likely lead to a lopsided ratio of interceptions to touchdowns next season. The good news is that without Hephzibah in the region this year, which handed Cross Creek a 41-6 defeat in 2017, Cross Creek will now have six non-region games to prepare for the conference schedule, as well as one less team standing in the way of its playoff aspirations.