Here's a look at five things we learned from the state high school football semifinals...
1. There is no quit -- but plenty of fight -- in these Wolves
Talking with Buford's Jess Simpson in the build up to last week's semifinal, the head coach offered that his team has suffered more injuries this season than any squad he has seen in the entirity of his high school coaching. And truly, the Wolves seem to have been blighted by the injury bug, with a number of key players and starters knocked from the season or missing large chunks of the campaign due to myriad issues. And yet, here Buford is, right back in the state championship game. The Wolves will mark their 10th straight title contest appearance on Friday when they take on the Wolves of Rome. And while it has not come easy this may indeed be the most satisfactory march to the Dome in recent history for Buford -- precisely because of the injuries and the obstacles that have attempted to derail the Wolves. Simpson and his players were the picture of emotion following their semifinal success -- a 28-16 battle with Kell that followed a 34-27 quarterfinal battle with Carrollton. After losing to Cartersville in last year's Class AAAA title contest -- which proved just the fourth time in 14 appearances that Buford lost a state title game -- the Wolves were determined to rebound, and now they have a chance to do just that thanks to squeezing every ounce of effort from a roster that has been stretched. And it is clear that Buford is relishing the fruits of their labors.
2. Grayson's speed the defining factor
Make no mistake, Mill Creek has serious speed -- go check out our video highlights of their semifinal defeat to the Rams for evidence from players like Edmond Graham -- but Grayson simply has more. And in a state semifinal game, every little edge is magnified exponentially. That proved the case on Friday, as the Hawks battled throughout but simply could not contain Grayson's perimeter players, who broke loose to create those explosive moments that so often prove the difference in any contest. After the game Mill Creek coach Shannon Jarvis said it was the fastest high school team he has ever coached against. And the Rams certainly made an impression on the eye. This weekend's state championship foe Roswell will certainly have plenty of its own speed. But it's hard to imagine any team matching these Rams. And we expect that to make the difference -- again -- this time in the Georgia Dome.
3. Jefferson is not going anywhere any time soon
Yes Friday night's loss hurt, as the Dragons poured every ounce of effort into their semifinal showdown at Thomson only to come up short. And while it was annoying, there's no point in rehashing the game's move away from Memorial Stadium now. There is plenty of reason, however, to look forward with optimsim for Jefferson fans. First, they should -- and you can guarantee they will -- salute an amazing senior class that included some absolute warriors. Players like Zack Boobas, Dontae Wilson, Caleb Chandler, Will Kellum, Jonathan Paolozzi, amongst others, provided an incredibly powerful momentum for this program. And their desire and work will be felt for some time to come. The 18 seniors of the class of 2017 leave with a record of 44-8. And the 21 juniors and 21 sophomores that they leave behind will have benefited from being around such a wilful group. Beyond that, the teammates they leave behind include standouts like running back Colby Wood and quarterback Colby Clark. That is plenty of firepower in its own right, and it will only get better. The Dragons are coming off the best five-year span in program history. Don't be surprised to see that continue to six, seven and beyond.
4. Cartersville can absorb a punch
We'll look outside of northeast Georgia for a couple of these points now... The defending Class AAAA champs were big and obvious favorites to get back to the championship game -- and now will be big favorites in the Georgia Dome. And they only made their case that much stronger in a 38-17 semifinal defeat of Mary Persons. The Purple Hurricanes fell behind 14-0 to a fired up squad of visitors before responding to take the lead and the win. After dominating throughout much of the campaign it was the kind of win that could prove huge should things get sticky again this week. There will be no panic amongst this group that must face a Thomson team that may be known for its power ground game but also showed on Friday that it can make big plays on the perimeter and through the air.
5. Valdosta looking to revisit a place it once owned
The Wildcats did not earn their hometown the moniker of "Title Town" for nothing, as Valdosta owns 24 state championships, the most in GHSA history. Yet after a glorious past, the present was proving unkind to the Wildcats, whose last state crown came in 1998. But a drop from the state's largest classification -- a point of pride that probably proved irksome to a few in Valdosta -- looks to have helped re-invigorate the Wildcats. Valdosta is back in a championship game for the first time since 2003 -- a game the Wildcats dropped to Camden County and are in the midst of their deepest state playoff run since a quarterfinal appearance in '10. Valdosta will very much have to earn No. 25, however, as they take on Tucker on Friday in the Class AAAAAA title game. The Tigers claimed titles in '08 and '11 and are have won 13 straight to get back into the Georgia Dome for the first time since knocking off Gainesville in the '13 semifinals.
STATE SEMIFINAL FOOTBALL SCORES, DEC. 2
Grayson 44, Mill Creek 26
Buford 28, Kell 16
Thomson 27, Jefferson 6
STATE CHAMPIONSHIP FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
At the Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Buford vs. Rome, 4:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9