The countdown to Region 1 continues. This week, I’m highlighting Region 6. Links from each of the previous region previews will be provided in each upcoming preview.
Geographically, Region 6-AAAA is Georgia’s most northwest region out of all the classifications and will be represented by its reigning champ, Ridgeland, in the first football game that will be played in the entire 2018 GHSA season. Last season, Ridgeland swept its way to a region crown and Heritage-Catoosa earned the No. 2 seed after only falling to the Panthers, but it would end up taking a mini-series between Northwest Whitfield, Pickens and Southeast Whitfield to break a three-way tie and decide the final two playoff spots. Ridgeland (46.25 ppg), Heritage (38.27), Pickens (37.82), Southeast Whitfield (32.4) and Northwest Whitfield (30.82) were all able to light up the scoreboard last season, but only Ridgeland was able to match its firepower, and truly excel on the defensive side.
Region 6-AAAA: Gilmer, Heritage-Catoosa, LaFayette, Northwest Whitfield, Pickens, Southeast Whitfield, Ridgeland
Rossville-native and first-year head coach Cortney Braswell will lead Ridgeland this season, taking over for Wesley Tankersley, who led the program to its first-ever perfect regular season and an 11-1 overall record in 2017. Tankersley hasn’t travelled far, taking over for Stephens County this offseason, which resides in Region 8-AAAA. Braswell, just 31 years old, has already built an impressive coaching resume during his time in adjacent Tennessee and is going to bring a fresh attitude and playbook to the program that could elevate it rather quickly to the next level. (The program reached its first-ever state final in 2012, but was humbled by Sandy Creek 45-10). Starting quarterback Tanner Hill will be entering his senior season and will be given more control in the new system that is scratching the program’s traditional Wing-T option for a modernized attack. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Hill has exceptional mobility and the physical and mental experience to prepare him for a big year. Hill also happens to be one of the few returning starting quarterbacks in the region next year, so that will another incredible advantage. Ridgeland will be tested right away with its opener against Calhoun in the MetroPCS Corky Kell Classic. Playing on a big stage, however, has also helped sharpen the focus this offseason and added even more buzz. Expect Ridgeland to keep rolling, and take note that this is going to be an interesting program to watch develop not only this upcoming season, but certainly in the years to come.
On the other side of the Region 6 spectrum is Gilmer, which hasn’t seen success or a competitive game in more than a year. Ridgeland’s 46.25 ppg offensively and 9.33 ppg allowed a year ago really puts into perspective how wide the gap from the region champ down to the region’s basement really is. The Bobcats were shut out 8 of 10 games a year ago, only managed 3.4 ppg and lost by 47.1 ppg. The program has gone winless in back-to-back seasons, and hasn’t seen success since Tankersley left in 2014 to accept the Ridgeland job after leading the program to three-straight postseasons.
The LaFayette Ramblers defeated Gilmer 42-6 last year, their only region win, and still gave up an average of 46 points per game in region action, despite holding Gilmer to 6. Last year, however, is behind the program as they have brought in a brand new coach with a trail of success to steer them toward a brighter future. In March, Paul Ellis was hired as the program’s 36th all-time head coach after leading the Fort Payne (Ala.) Wildcats for 14 seasons. Ellis leaves as Fort Payne’s all-time winningest coach with a 109-48 record. His teams made the playoffs 12 out of 14 years, claimed six region championships in Class 6A, and posted five seasons with 10 or more victories.
“We had 115 applicants for this position and he emerged over the interview process as the best fit to lead our football program into the future,” LaFayette Principal Tracy Hubbert told the Walker County Messenger.
Southeast Whitfield fell 7-0 to Pickens in the region mini-series and missed out of reaching the playoffs, despite its 7-3 record being its best finish since 1985. Their 32.4 ppg on offense were the best in school history, but the departure of starting quarterback Porter Johnson and Oscar Gonzalez, a two-sport star that used his 6-foot-4 frame to haul in a team-high 13 touchdown grabs in 2017, will leave head coach Sean Gray searching for the next class of playmakers and leaders.
Pickens’ reward for earning the No. 4 seed a year ago was a first-round trip to juggernaut Cartersville, and the Dragons were dealt a 48-21 defeat. Pickens averaged 208 rushing yards per game last season and will once again rely heavily on the ground game in 2018. Leading the way will be Robert Davis, an explosive running back that took 115 carries for 1,202 rushing yards (10.5 ypc) and ran in 14 touchdowns last year as a junior. Defensively, Pickens gave up 34.5 ppg a year ago, and in this case, a solid running game might be the quickest way to alleviate some of the pressure that the defense has been feeling.
Northwest Whitfield head coach Josh Robinson became the first in Bruins’ history to reach three straight postseasons last year, but will have a new quarterback to work with next season. Luke Shiflett, a 6-foot-2, 3-star passer, enrolled at Middle Tennessee State this January. Shifllett’s dual-threat ability is what not only balanced out the offense the past few seasons, but what grabbed the attention of MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill in 2016 after a breakout junior season. Shiflett passed for 2,330 yards with a 64-percent completion rate and added 741 rushing yards, accounting for 33 total touchdowns.
Heritage-Catoosa has only been around since 2008, but the 2017 season proved to be an incredible way to celebrate a decade of gridiron competition. A 13-11 win over Ringgold two games into the season gave the program its first-ever win over the rival Tigers in 10 tries. The Generals, led by head coach E.K. Slaughter, didn’t slow down and capped a school-record 9-2 finish by reaching back-to-back postseasons for the first time. The Generals continue a steady rise, but Slaughter is going to challenged by having to replace a pair of three-sport stars (quarterback Blake Bryan and primary receiver Luke Grant). Bryan sparked last year’s offense with 27 touchdown passes and 182.3 passing yards per game, and Grant hauled in 15 touchdowns and finished the year with 1,065 receiving yards.