Prep Zone

Atlanta high school sports news from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

7A season in review: It came down to one kick

North Gwinnett’s 19-17 victory over Colquitt County in the Class AAAAAAA championship game ended one of the more unpredictable and suspenseful seasons in years in the highest classification.

It has been asked whether Cameron Clark’s 38-yard field goal was the first final-play game-winning score to win a state championship in regulation.

The answer is no, but it’s indeed rare.

In 1980, Greenville beat Clinch County when Melvin Robertson caught a 42-yard Hail Mary halfback pass from Darryl Ogletree on the final play. That probably remains the single most dramatic ending in state finals history.

Pencil in Clark’s field goal and the preceding events right up there with any, though.

Don't forget that the 2016 title game between Roswell and Grayson was pretty riveting, too. Roswell's Malik Willis threw a 20-yard TD pass to Kentrell Barber on the final play of regulation to tie the game, but Grayson won 26-23 in overtime.

And for the record, Clark's kick wasn’t the first time that a last-minute field goal has won a state final in the highest classification. Colquitt County fans also will remember 1991, when Scott Simonds kicked a 24-yard field goal with 13 seconds left to give LaGrange a 17-16 win. And in 1982, Valdosta's Herbert Lowe kicked a 24-yard field goal with 33 seconds left to beat Peachtree 10-7.

There also have been missed field goals in the final seconds that preserved wins. Valdosta would’ve beaten Clarke Central in 1977, and Clarke would’ve tied Valdosta in 1992, were it not for relatively short missed field goals at the end.

But, so much for history.

Ten good storylines from 2017, counting them down:

10. To the glory years: Brookwood and Parkview, old enemies off Five Forks Trickum Road in Gwinnett County, have a special rivalry going again partly thanks to alumni who are in charge of the programs. Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, these two were Gwinnett’s most prominent programs in the highest class. This season, each made the quarterfinals in the same season for the first time since 2005. That’s also the last season that their game, played Oct. 20 this year and won by Brookwood 30-27, truly decided the region championship. Brookwood, coached by Philip Jones, member of the Broncos’ 1996 state champion, finished 11-3. Parkview, led by Eric Godfree, was 9-4.

9. What goes up, must come down: Roswell opened the season ranked No. 3, a show of respect for its state runner-up finishes in 2015 and 2016. But the Hornets had lost some 20 starters and its head coach, John Ford, to Buford. Matt Kemper, who had led Johns Creek to a region title in 2016, got the job of rebuilding it, and it wasn’t easy. Roswell finished 3-8.

8. Raider revival: Coming off a 4-6 finish, Walton got a new coach, Daniel Brunner, and produced its first 10-0 regular season and region title since 2011. In the end, Walton might’ve been the classification’s third-best team. The Raiders beat eventual champion North Gwinnett 31-28 in the opener and lost to runner-up Colquitt County 28-21 in the second round. Star wide receiver Dominick Blaylock was the Region 4 player of the year. He’ll be back next year.

7. Making 2016 a fluke: Archer re-emerged as a state power with a 12-1 finish after a 4-7 anomaly in 2016. Archer had won 11 games each of the three previous seasons but lost a couple of blue-chip prospects to transfer and bottomed out (by Archer’s standards) in 2016. This season, with an especially rugged defense, the Tigers were back with a vengeance, avenging losses to Mill Creek, Norcross, Roswell and especially arch-rival Grayson, a 6-3 decision on Oct. 13 that ultimately gave Archer the Region 8 championship.

6. Blue Devilish omen: Marietta was the Cinderella playoff team, qualifying for the playoffs as a fifth-place wild cared. The Blue Devils then beat Westlake and Woodstock to reach the quarterfinals, where they lost to North Gwinnett 51-41. They hadn’t gone that far since 1994. Next season, they won’t be Cinderellas, though. They’ll be the evil step-mother. Harrison Bailey, a sophomore quarterback, leads a cast of underclass talent that should have Marietta contending consistently like it hasn’t in some 25 years.

5. A lift from Tift: It was good year for South Georgia. Remember there are only four of them now in the high class, but three finished in the top 10. The last time that happened was 2013, when Region 1 was still seven strong with a healthy Camden County. Lowndes and Colquitt were preseason top-10 teams. It was Tift County that had its best season in over a decade. Tift (11-2) lost at Brookwood 35-28 in the quarterfinals and finished ranked for the first time since 2006. The Blue Devils, with a record-setting passing due of Griffin Collier and Rashod Bateman, joined Lowndes and Colquitt in the final Top 10.

4. All eyes still on Grayson: Grayson started the season ranked No. 1 on the strength of its 2016 state title and a junior class that has about nine major college prospects led by five-star linebacker Owen Pappoe. The Rams went quietly in the second round when they lost 35-28 to North Gwinnett, but it was an eventful season under first-year coach Christian Hunnicutt. (If you’re curious, Jeff Herron left for T.L. Hanna in Anderson, S.C., and went 11-1 with a team that was 6-5 the season before.) Grayson defeated Hoover of Alabama and John Curtis of Louisiana, the best football programs in their states. (Hoover went on to win another Class 7A title in Alabama.) Grayson could be the team to beat in 2017 if its young talent rises to the occasion.

3. Gone in four minutes: Lowndes had its best team in years and entered the playoffs ranked No. 1, the clear favorite to win it all. The Vikings were averaging a state-leading 54.2 points per game entering its second-round matchup with McEachern. Quarterback Michael Barrett had passed for over 1,500 yards and rushed for over 1,000 while generally sitting the second half in blowouts. Lowndes led 24-0 with less than a minute left in the first half, then 31-14 with four minutes left in the game. Suddenly, it was over. McEachern freshman Carlos Del Rio threw two TD passes, the last with 54 seconds left, and McEachern left with a stunning 36-31 win.

2. Kings of the road: Colquitt County head coach Rush Propst said the worst feeling in football isn’t having a bad season, or exiting the playoffs sooner than expected, but to get to the championship – only to lose. And it couldn’t have been any more painful than a last-play field goal on a drive fueled by Colquitt mistakes. But as time passes, Colquitt might feel pretty good about a season that saw the Packers finish only third in its region, then win four straight games on the road – something only 11 teams have done in history – to reach the championship game. A third state title in four seasons would’ve been special, but even in defeat, it’s hard not to marvel at what Colquitt and Propst have accomplished these last several years.

1. Year of the Bulldog: North Gwinnett has been good for years now. It won five region titles under Bob Sphire, who brought the program to prominence starting in 2006 (11-2 finish his first season at a place that had never won 10 games). Bill Stewart was hired to replace Sphire, who went to Camden County. North was 5-5 and 6-5 the past two seasons, all the while that Stewart was Mill Creek’s defensive coordinator, reaching a pair of state semifinals with overachieving defenses. North loses its opening game, then a week later loses its starting quarterback, a Texas A&M commit. Nice time for a 14-game winning streak. The state championship in North Gwinnett’s first in 57 years of varsity football.

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