Here's a look at five things we learned from the final week of the high school football regular season...
1. Jackson County, North Forsyth and West Hall have nerves of steel -- and a tangible turnaround underway
Each one of these programs came into Friday night's contests knowing that they absolutely had to win to make the playoffs. That factor has overwhelmed a number of very worthy teams in the past -- not so the Panthers, Raiders and Spartans. That factor alone is impressive enough in of itself and shows the area trio worthy of making the postseason -- as they were more or less already playing in it. Perhaps, in West Hall's case, those nerves of steel are even more impressive considering that none of the Spartans had even sniffed the playoffs before. In fact, West Hall's last playoff bid came in 2002, when the current seniors on the Spartans squad were seven at the oldest. (We'd rather not say what was going on in the world when we were seven -- suffice to say there was no internet, cell phones or X-box). And that fact alone is reason to heap praise on the job the West Hall coaching staff (led by Tony Lotti) has undertaken. North Forsyth and Jackson County also deserve tons of credit -- especially considering that the Raiders are under new head coach Jason Galt and Jackson County is under a second-year coach in Benji Harrison -- whose Panthers will be making their second playoff appearance in his second season in charge. Congratulations to each, and may that refusal to lose serve you well in next week's postseason.
2. Johnathan Gilreath had a season to remember, leaves Lumpkin with spark for the future
The Indians underwent some growing pains in coach Brad Waggoner's first season in charge, but there were plenty of positive signs for the future. The only unfortunate part is that two of the brightest won't be there for another season in Dahlonega. Receiver Johnathan Gilreath and quarterback Daniel McCrary both completed their senior campaign in style this past Friday, courtesy a 31-28 upset of playoff-bound Stephens County in Toccoa. Gilreath and McCrary each broke school records in the victory -- McCrary passing for 294 yards and three touchdowns and Gilreath catching 17 passes for 226 yards. The performance pushed Gilreath to 1,127 yards receiving on the season -- good enough for top 10 amongst the entire state. That's beyond impressive, for both players. Again, it stinks that we, and Lumpkin fans, won't get a chance to see their improvement in year two under Waggoner. But the services they have provided will most certainly linger through next season and help inspire the next group of Indians starters. And that could be just as important as their work on the field this season.
3. Deshaun Watson's wheels are still fine, just getting warmed up in fact
For much of 2013 it looked as though Gainesville football had opted to make Deshaun Watson a pure pocket passer. Then came last week's Region 8-AAAAA championship game. With a region championship and No. 1 playoff seed on the line, the Red Elephants decided to dust off Watson's running plays against Flowery Branch and see how much difference the senior's legs could make. The answer showed why he is the biggest weapon in Georgia high school football. After weeks of relying mostly on his arm, Watson ripped off 201 yards rushing to help Gainesville see off a determined Falcons challenge. And that did not come against a weak defense. In fact, Flowery Branch did its best to make the senior signal caller pay for every carry, and there were plenty of bone-crunching hits. But almost every time the Red Elephants needed a play, Watson was there. And his performance will give every playoff foe Gainesville faces pause. Pick your poison, because there won't be many teams able to slow Watso both through the air and on the ground.
4. Coin tosses are cold, but Bob Sphire is not bothered
It's cold and unfair, but -- let's face it -- are there any fair ways to split up a three-way tie? North Gwinnett felt the cold sting of perhaps the most arbitrary manner on Friday when the Bulldogs lost a coin toss that condemned them to the third seed in Region 7-AAAAAA. This is a North Gwinnett team that was ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAAA for much of the season and only stumbled after starting quarterback Hayden Sphire went down with a leg injury. Yet instead of moan, gripe or wonder what might have been, North Gwinnett head Bob Sphire (Hayden's father) talked only of the opportunities ahead after learning of his program's fate on Friday. Coach Sphire even went a step further to note that home field is overrated in the postseason. And when you have a team like the Bulldogs that may well be true.
5. Riverside, Towns County have something to look forward to
The Eagles and Indians had plenty of questions coming into 2013, and, while things weren't always easy, both programs showed that they may indeed have bright futures. First-year Towns County coach Blair Harrison led the Indians to their highest win total since 2008, while second year Eagles coach Gary Downs bounced back from last year's 2-8 record to go 5-5 in 2013. Those are the kind of seasons on which rebounds are built and both coaches and players will hope that is exactly what is in the future. It is not a guarantee, as both face unique challenges. Riverside's roster changes year-to-year like no other, while it is hard to get players to train year-round at a military boarding school (when players scatter for the summer). Meanwhile, Towns County is dealing with a small enrollment and a history that includes just one winning season. But the Indians went 4-6, winning four of their last five contests, showing that they have grasped much of what Harrison is asking. Meanwhile, the Eagles soared after the changes Downs made midway through last season to a more wide-open attack. Both programs probably wish the 2013 campaign had more games to spare, but 2014 looks bright indeed.
AREA HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL FINALS, NOV. 8
Buford 42, North Hall 14
Chestatee 42, Madison County 0
Collins Hill 45, Mill Creek 34
Commerce 24, Pinecrest Academy 14
East Hall 55, Fannin County 20
Gainesville 55, Flowery Branch 45
Jackson County 38, Morgan County 35
Jefferson 49, Union County 3
Lafayette 35, Johnson 34
Lumpkin County 31, Stephens County 28
North Forsyth 17, South Forsyth 12
North Gwinnett 44, Peachtree Ridge 22
Oconee County 20, East Jackson 17
Rabun County 57, Oglethorpe County 0
Riverside Military Academy 30, Greene County 26
Towns County 34, Hebron Christian Academy 19
West Hall 10, Dawson County 7
White County 38, Banks County 13
Winder-Barrow 27, Apalachee 20
AREA TEAMS STATE PLAYOFF MATCH-UPS:
First round contests for Classes AAAAAA-AA take place Nov. 15; Class A first round begins Nov. 22
North Forsyth (No. 4 seed, 6-AAAAAA) at Archer (No. 1, Region 8-AAAAAA)
North Gwinnett (No. 3, 7-AAAAAA) at Milton (No. 2, 5-AAAAAA)
Gainesville (No. 1, 8-AAAAA) vs. M.L. King (No. 4, 6-AAAAA)
Flowery Branch (No. 2, 8-AAAAA) vs. Stephenson (No. 3, 6-AAAAA)
Chestatee (No. 2, 8-AAAA) vs. Grady (No. 3, 6-AAAA)
Stephens County (No. 4, 8-AAAA) at Marist (No. 1, 6-AAAA)
Buford (No. 1, 7-AAA) vs. Sonoraville (No. 4, 5-AAA)
White County (No. 2, 7-AAA) vs. Adairsville (No. 3, 5-AAA)
North Hall (No. 3, 7-AAA) at Ringgold (No. 2, 5-AAA)
West Hall (No. 4, 7-AAA) at Cartersville (No. 1, 5-AAA)
Jackson County (No. 4, 8-AAA) at Blessed Trinity (No. 1, 6-AAA)
Jefferson (No. 2, 8-AA) vs. Westminster (No. 3, 6-AA)
Rabun County (No. 3, 8-AA) at Greater Atlanta Christian (No. 2, 6-AA)
Union County (No. 4, 8-AA) at Lovett (No. 1, 6-AA)
Commerce -- awaits GHSA Class A power rating to find out seeding