By John McClellan
For Hometown Headlines
The level of play in high school football may be at its highest level in three decades as teams prepare for the 2016 season. Calhoun, Cartersville and Rome all have the opportunity to make deep runs into the state playoffs, while Adairsville, Chattooga, Darlington, Model, Pepperell, Sonoraville, Unity Christian School and Trion also may find themselves still alive come playoff time.
The Rome Wolves, eight years removed from their last-second loss in a state semifinal game at Marist and coming off a 2015 season that saw them win their first playoff game since 2008 before a 35-24 second round loss at Ware County ended the year, are poised for greatness in one of the toughest regions in the state. Led by a defense anchored by three first-team preseason all-state players, the John Reid-coached Wolves loom as one of the favorites to battle for the region crown and a shot at the Class AAAAA state championship in 2016.
The task for Rome won’t be an easy one as three other teams in the region also rank among the best Class AAAAA teams in the state. The Kell Longhorns have reached the state playoffs for eight straight years, including a 2015 season that ended in a loss in the quarterfinals to Northgate. The Carrollton Trojans, who have slipped to records of 4-6 and 6-6 the past two seasons after reaching the Class AAAA state championship game in 2013, are looking for better things under new head coach Sean Calhoun. The East Paulding Raiders, who emerged as a state power under Reid between 2006 and 2011, look to go deeper into the state playoffs after a first-round loss to Lanier a year ago.
Should any of the four region favorites falter, the Paulding County Patriots, who are coming off their first winning season since 2003, could slip into the state playoffs. The Cass Colonels, whose 6-4 mark in 2015 was their best in 10 years, would be a playoff team in any other region in Northwest Georgia. The Villa Rica Wildcats, who came close to pulling an upset over Rome in the season opener, never recovered from the loss on their way to a record of 2-8. The Hiram Hornets are coming off a disappointing mark of 3-7 after finishing 6-4 the year before. The Woodland Wildcats, who haven’t had a winning record since 1999, look to improve from their 1-9 record under second year coach Tony Plott.
This Rome-area region—only Dade County is more than a 30 minute drive for the four Floyd County schools that serve as the region’s base—is more evenly matched than at any time this century as three teams—Chattooga, Model and Pepperell—are a legitimate threat to win the region title and every school in the region has at least an outside shot to nab a state playoff berth.
The Chattooga Indians, who were 7-3 in the regular season in 2015 for their best mark since 2009, came close to pulling off one of the biggest shockers in the state before falling 34-28 in the first round of the state playoffs to Region 6-AA champion Lovett. The Model Blue Devils, who lost only to Darlington in their best regular season showing since their 1979 state championship season, lost in the state playoffs to Wesleyan. The Pepperell Dragons, under first year head coach Rick Hurst, finished with a 7-4 record with losses only to Class AAAAA Paulding County and Region 5-AAA powers Central of Carrollton and Callaway along with a first round playoff loss to Jefferson.
All of the other teams in the region look to be improved in 2016. The Dade County Wolverines finished 6-5, their best record since 2010, with the season ending in a state playoff loss to Greater Atlanta Christian. The Rockmart Yellow Jackets, who move down from Class AAA, are under new head coach Biff Parson after finishing 2-8 a year ago. The Coosa Eagles, whose lone win a year ago came over Rockmart, look to rebound from a disappointing season that was their worst since 1997. The Armuchee Indians went 2-8 in their best season since 2011 highlighted by a season ending win over Coosa. The Gordon Central Warriors struggled to their second straight 1-9 season in which they were plagued by injuries.
The Darlington Tigers, who were 10-0 in the regular season in 2015 before a 31-0 loss to eventual state champion Pace Academy in the first round of the Class AA state playoffs abruptly ended their year, return to Class A as a legitimate contender for the subregion title. Their biggest competition will come from the Bowdon Red Devils, who also are dropping back down to Class A after finishing 6-6 and losing in the second round of the Class AA state playoffs to Macon County.
Elsewhere in the subregion: The Trion Bulldogs are coming off a season of 8-4 that ended with a loss to state runner-up Irwin County in the quarterfinals of the Class A Public School state playoffs. The Christian Heritage Lions finished 5-5 in the regular season in 2015 before losing 28-27 to state runner-up Aquinas in the quarterfinals of The Class A Private School state playoffs. The Mt. Zion Eagles, who have had back to back winning seasons for the first time in the school’s 60-year football history, finished 8-4 after losing in the Class A Public School state playoff quarterfinals to Emanuel County Institute. The Gordon Lee Trojans, still another team returning to Class A, finished 4-6 in Region 7-AA. The North Cobb Christian Eagles, who finished 6-4 against a non-region schedule (the first winning record in school history) a year ago, are competing for the first time for a playoff berth.
The Mt. Paran Christian Eagles, whose season ended in an upset loss in the quarterfinals to eventual Class A Private School state champion Eagles Landing Christian, are the favorite to win the other subregion in Region 6-A. Their biggest competition will come from Pinecrest Academy, whose 10-2 season ended in a Class A Private School playoff loss to Stratford Academy. Mt. Pisgah Christian also is a playoff threat from Region 6-A, followed by Fellowship Christian, Whitefield Academy, St. Francis, and Kings Ridge Christian.
The Cartersville Purple Hurricanes are the consensus favorite to repeat as Class AAAA state champions in 2016. Cartersville, which has not lost a region game since 2010, went undefeated in 2015 on its way to winning every region game by 35 points or more and shocked perennial power Buford 10-0 in the state title game. The Hurricanes will find the going far tougher in 2016 with their switch from their former Northwest Georgia based region to the new region that runs as far south as LaGrange.
The Sandy Creek Fighting Patriots, who have reached the state playoffs 14 straight years in a streak that has included two state titles, are a legitimate threat to take the region and state crown from Cartersville. The Central of Carrollton Lions, who have won 30 games over the past three seasons and are moving up from Class AAA, and the LaGrange Grangers, who have not had a winning season since 2009, are the favorites for the final two playoff berths.
Rounding out the region are the Chapel Hill Panthers, who are moving down to Class AAAA after finishing 2-8 and defeating only Lithia Springs and Villa Rica in Class AAAAA a year ago; the Troup Tigers, whose lone win in a 1-9 season came over Whitewater in the final game of the season, and the Cedartown Bulldogs, who defeated Haralson County and Rockmart in a 2-9 season that ended with a first round Class AAA state playoff loss to Oconee County.
Few things are more certain in Georgia high school football than the Calhoun Yellow Jackets winning a region championship and 2016 won’t be any different. The Yellow Jackets, who haven’t even lost a region game since 2001 on their way to 15 straight region crowns, must undergo a tough non-league game against Cartersville before embarking on their quest for a second state championship in three years. Calhoun is the obvious choice to win the Region 6-AA championship in 2016.
Region 6-AAA is the only subdivided region in the Georgia High School Association after the 10 schools in the region couldn’t agree on a schedule with the five southernmost schools wanting to play an all-region slate and the five northernmost schools wanting to have little involvement with the other half of the region. GHSA officials finally had to step in and fashion a compromise. The result is a subdivided region with each school playing the teams in its subregion and two teams from the other subregion. The top four teams then will meet in crossover games (1 v. 4 and 2 v. 3) in the final week of the regular season to determine the four teams representing the region in the playoffs.
The far stronger of the two subregions is in the south with Calhoun leading the way. The Adairsville Tigers, whose only losses in 2015 were to Calhoun in the regular season and to Class AAA state champion Westminster in the AAA state quarterfinals, are the clear choice to finish second in the subregion. The Sonoraville Phoenix, who were 7-3 in the regular season and who lost to Westside of Macon in the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs, should finish third in the subregion. Fourth place should go to the Bremen Blue Devils, who finished 4-7 after a 49-14 Class AA first round state playoff loss to Rabun County but were forced to move up to Class AAA as the unlikely victim of the out of county enrollment rule aimed at Buford and the metro Atlanta private schools. The Haralson County Rebels, who are coming off their second straight 1-9 season, likely will finish last.
The Ringgold Tigers, who were 6-4 in the regular season but lost to Dawson County in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs, are the heavy favorite to win the northern subregion. They will be followed by the North Murray Mountaineers, who were 4-6 a year ago with Preston Poag named as the new head coach for 2016; the Murray County Indians, who also were 4-6 in 2015; the Coahulla Creek Colts, whose lone wins in the 2015 season came over Gordon Central and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, and the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe Warriors, who are coming off an 0-10 season.
With the departure of Cartersville, the Region 6-AAAA title race is wide open in 2016. Three teams—the Northwest Whitfield Bruins, whose first round Class AAAA state playoff loss to Grady ended a 7-4 season; the Pickens Dragons, who were 8-3 after a first Class AAAA state playoff loss to Marist, and the Ridgeland Panthers, who were only 4-7 a year ago and who lost to St. Pius X in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs—are expected to engage in a close battle for the region crown.
The race for the fourth playoff spot also should be a tight one among the Southeast Whitfield Bruins, who are coming off a 5-5 season that included upset wins over Northwest Whitfield and Ridgeland; the Heritage Generals, who were 4-6 in 2015, and the Gilmer Bobcats, who were only 4-6 after four straight eight-win seasons. The LaFayette Ramblers, who were 1-9 and who only won six games over the past four years, are the pick to finish seventh.
GICAA North Conference
The Unity Christian School Lions should be in the playoff hunt for a post season berth in the eight-man football division of the Georgia Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The Lions, who were 3-7 playing an 11-man football schedule in 2015, lost to GICAA state champion Thomas Jefferson Academy in the 11-man division state semifinals. The Praise Academy Tigers, who won the GICAA eight-man state championship in 2015, are the conference favorite after going 11-2 a year ago and losing 36-34 in the GICAA eight-man semifinals. The Harvester Christian Academy Hawks lost only to Praise Academy in the regular season before ending a 10-2 season in a GICAA eight-man state semifinal loss to Central Christian. The Shiloh Hills Christian School Challengers lost 61-6 to Lafayette Christian in the first round of the GICAA eight-man state playoffs to end a 5-5 season. Hearts Academy, who is only fielding a football team for the third season, was 0-7 in GICAA’s eight-man division in 2015.
Next week: John’s season-opening picks.