Starting with Region 8 today, I will work my way down and highlight the next region each week until Region 1. Next week’s Region 7 feature will include this Region 8 link, and the Region 6 feature will include both previous links, and so forth.
Region 8 is one of the most spread out regions in the classification, spanning from the Metro-Atlanta based St. Pius, all the way northeast to Stephens County High School, which sits just miles from the Georgia-South Carolina border. The biggest configuration change to affect the region this offseason came with the departure of Jefferson to Class AAA post-reclassification, but there is a strong tradition shared by these five programs and several big name underclassmen that are gaining serious steam on the recruiting scene.
St. Pius enters its 18th season with head coach Paul Standard at the helm and is fresh off a Region 8 title and impressive turnaround campaign. After experiencing a proliferation of success from 2009-2015, that included 67 wins in the six-year span, the offense and the Golden Lions stalled in 2016, dipping down to just 12.4 ppg and posting its worst finish (2-9) since Standard’s arrival. Last season was a defining moment for the program as the team opened up the season 0-5 before region action and then caught fire. Oddly enough, St. Pius has not won a region game in four seasons and has actually dropped 15 straight non-region games entering this season so that is a streak that could and should end this year. Still, region games are where it counts and St. Pius seems to be back on track after following that 0-5 start with a clean sweep of the region last year and then defeating West Hall, Troup and Woodward Academy before finally getting eliminated by Marist in the semis 35-14. St. Pius is a well-coached team that gets better as the season goes on and they’ll have six non-region games this time around to prepare them for an Oct. 5 region opener against Oconee County that will have massive implications on the race for the region crown.
Oconee County is led by head coach Travis Nolan, who arrived at the program in 2014 after serving as Stephens County head coach for nine seasons and spending seven successful years in North Carolina. Nolan’s Warriors have made the playoffs in each of his four years at the school, and ran into state champion Blessed Trinity (35-0) in the first round a year ago. Nolan has one of the top quarterback prospects in the state leading his offense in Class of 2020 prospect Max Johnson. The 6-foot-4 pro style passer started as a sophomore last season, and will be working with a nearly brand new corps of receivers this year. Johnson has already been offered by Miami, FSU, Auburn, UGA and Louisville and is currently the No. 10 ranked prospect in the star-studded Class of 2020. With only five teams in this region and four of them guaranteed a playoff spot, there is no doubt that Johnson’s junior year will be both a challenge and an opportunity for the promising passer to show off his leadership skills against a well-balanced and diverse classification of teams and lead this team deeper into the playoffs.
Stephens County is being led by former Ridgeland coach Wesley Tankersley this season and will be feeling the changes this year after the disappointment of missing out of the playoffs for the first time since 2009 last season. The Indians graduated most of their passing game and nearly all of their rushing game, but the changes that will come with Tankersley should be able to breed healthy competition and like the rest of the region, Stephens County will have six non-region games to prepare for the in-conference competition.
Madison County, which used its 20-14 win over Stephens County to grab the No. 4 seed a year ago, advanced to its first playoffs since 2006 and fought hard against a superior Marist team in the first round before falling 38-14. Leading this impressive run was another Class of 2020 passer, Colby Smith, who threw 12 of his 13 touchdowns a year ago to underclassmen that will be returning this year. Two-sport athlete Traveon Latimore is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound playmaker that caught seven touchdowns, rushed in five touchdowns and did the bulk of this damage against the region competition. Look for Latimore to help balance out the offense this year, create mismatches, and play a larger role his senior season.
North Oconee hasn’t been the same since running back Kawon Bryant graduated in 2015; Bryant rushed for 28 touchdowns and led the Titans to the school’s first-ever quarterfinals his senior season. The team posted a 5-6 record the first year post-Bryant, but have now gone just 1-19 in the past two. Finding, and creating depth will be the most important task for the Titans this season as durability, especially on the defensive side was non-existent by the end of last season. The Titans were swept by Region 8 and surrendered 44 points per game in the five-game span to close the season.