Let's go ahead and get it out there, the 2016 season did not end in glory. Going a second straight year without a state championship for any teams in northeast Georgia certainly proved disappointing.
But by no means does that equate to a substandard or forgettable 2016 high school football campaign overall.
In fact, this fall provided some of the more remarkable prep girdiron moments of recent memory -- and, as we've finally had a chance to exhale, we'd like to take a few minutes to recognize the extraordinary players, games, and settings that made 2016 what it was.
With that in mind, we present our annual AccessWDUN Sports/Friday Game Night year-end football awards. First off, do yourself a favor and watch the highlight reel above. Video producer Seth Chapman's piece proves some jaw-dropping exploits of northeast Georgia's gridiron greats guaranteed to get your blood pumping. You can also scroll through our photo gallery by clicking on the picture to the left, which contains some impressive stills from a number of dedicated and gifted photographers.
Now that you've done that let's get on with the superlatives: (Editor's note: This list is an amalgamation of the views of the sports department and what we witnessed this campaign -- it is by NO means some end-all, be-all, simply our humble opinions. If you feel we missed something or disagree, feel free to email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS
There were a plethora to choose from this season, some incredible performances, some stellar games and even a few completely off-the-wall. Let's start with the man-made instances... And there was a huge one that changed the entire complexion of 2016 -- one that happened in the last few days.
- Jess Simpson leaving Buford. The Longtime Buford head coach and assistant spent a combined 22 years with the Wolves -- a span that saw Buford develop into arguably the state's premier program of the millenium. Consider that Simpson was a top assistant for Buford's run of three straight state championships (2001-03) and then guided the Wolves to four straight state crowns in 2007-10 and three more between 2012-14 as the head coach. Some fans like to trot out (what we feel is) a ridiculous argument that Buford wins simply on talent. Ask any coach around the area, let alone at Buford, how important Simpson was to the Wolves success, and see what they say. The man was a huge peice of an incredible run, and now we'll see how things develop both for the program and for Simpson, who goes on to take over Georgia State's defensive line.
- Kyle Bacus' explosion against East Hall (Oct. 29). The North Hall senior running back was unstoppable against the Vikings, rolling up a school-record 337 yards rushing in one game to supplant former Trojans standout TJ Pitts, as North Hall ran away with a 68-42 victory. Certainly the North Hall offensive line deserves plenty of credit too, but Bacus' was playing football from another dimension that night. Every handoff seemed like it was destined for the end zone thanks to his combination of vision, speed and understanding of what was happening around him.
- Rabun County thoroughly dismantling Elbert County (Oct. 21). This was billed as one of the top games of the state, regardless of classification. Two top 10 teams, squaring off in a historic setting for what amounted to a region title. It ended in total Wildcat domination, 42-10. It not only showed that Rabun was on the rise -- despite graduating the most successful class in program history after 2015 -- but also made them a player on the state scene.
- Mill Creek setting the tone for its season with a 34-27 defeat of Colquitt in the Kell Classic. What a better way to start a campaign than by opening with a victory over a two-time defending state champ in the Georgia Dome? Oh yeah, make it sweet revenge after the Packers had defeated the Hawks in the state semifinals the season before. The contest vaulted Mill Creek into the thick of the Class AAAAAAA race, only building momentum through the regular season.
- Hearing the news that Banks County made playoff history. This one had nothing to do with what happened on the field -- well, a little bit if you count what KIPP Atlanta players did in the aftermath of a game, getting involved in a fracas in its regular season finale that led the school to voluntarily forfeit its first round state playoff game. The decision vaulted the Leopards into the second round of the state playoffs for the first time in program history. It didn't come the way Banks may necessarily have liked, but it was historic nontheless -- and a fitting reward for a team that stormed down the backstretch of the season to earn a No. 2 seed.
- Lightning ripping its way through Week 1 of the season. While most of the state was ready to kickoff the 2016 season (many had already gotten things going in Week Zero), Mother Nature had other ideas. She intervened with a series of lightning strikes and downpours that halted just about every game in northeast Georgia. And it even caused a few cancellations. It made for a late night in most other places... If only we could have portioned some of that rain out for later in the fall -- but we digress.
WHAT WE'LL MISS MOST ABOUT 2016
- Jeff Prickett -- This one is definitely a little personal, especially for those of us in the media. Since 1972 there has been something even more constant than winning for Commerce football, and that is the work of Jeff Prickett. Commerce's esteemed statistician and program historian witnessed 572 of the 584 games the Tigers have played since the '72 season. And after each one, we knew the phone would ring with Mr. Prickett on the other end, raring to provide all the important details of the latest Tigers contest. Yet 2016 proved Prickett's final go-around. And after 45 years that included two state titles, a host of region crowns and countless exciting match-ups, it is a retirement well-earned.
- All the seniors that gave their all in 2016 -- Congratulations to so many of you that took the lead in what was another memorable campaign.
There were plenty of teams that we expected to take steps forward in 2016, and many of those did -- Habersham Central, in its second season under Benji Harrison, put together its best season in five years and flirted with the postseason, imbuing plenty of confidence in Mt. Airy. Apalachee also halted a 12-game losing skid in Steve Sims' second campaign. And Jackson County also managed to fight its way into the state playoffs for the first time under Brandon Worley (in his second year). But there were a handful of programs that presented complete question marks heading into 2016. And these five shocked us in a good way.
- Banks County -- After losing coach Biff Parson in the offseason, the Leopards were faced with a third new head coach in five seasons. But Josh Shoemaker knew exactly what he was stepping into after serving as an assistant under Parson -- and it showed. Shoemaker led the Leopards through a storming finish to the season that saw Banks County win its final four games of the regular season, including at Elbert County to finish as a No. 2 seed in Region 8-AA. And then came that unusual state playoff scenario. Now Shoemaker and company find themselves sitting on the other side of history.
- Chestatee -- We felt the program was in good hands with new head coach Shaun Conley and his staff. But after winning just one game combined over the 2014-15 seasons, we felt it could take some time for that to show up in the final scores. The War Eagles were in no mood to play the long game, however, and showed it, storming into the state playoffs for the first time since 2013. And Chestatee won three of its first five games, displaying a wide-open offense that thrilled and produced results.
- Lumpkin County -- Not only did the Indians suffer a coaching change, they did so just two months before the start of the season, with new coach Shane Williamson taking the reins in June. Throw in the fact that Lumpkin County was coming off a 2-8 record from 2015 and you had the makings of a rough season. The Indians were not about to make excuses, however, and they simply buckled down and got into the thick of the playoff race in Region 7-AAA. They finished just on the outside of the postseason (4-6), but we saw enough in 2016 to suggest that things are definitely back on the upswing in Dahlonega.
- East Jackson -- Sandwiched between two power programs in Commerce and Jefferson, the Eagles have been largely an afterthought, posting just one winning season in program history (10-2 in 2009). In fact, outside of 2009, East Jackson's highest win total was 3 -- until now. New coach Christian Hunnicutt showed that he knows what it takes to get things going in his first campaign in charge of the Eagles, leading them to a 4-6 mark that included two region wins -- which even had East Jackson sniffing the postseason race. It will be interesting indeed to see where things go from here.
- North Forsyth -- The Raiders also entered 2015 with a new head coach, and coming off a couple years worth of frustration, going a combined 3-17 after reaching the state playoffs and going 7-4 in 2013. And playing in the largest classification in the state provides very little forgiveness. But instead of easing his way into things, Robert Craft announced his presence with a bang, leading the Raiders to a 4-2 start. Things did prove tough over the final weeks of the season, as North Forsyth missed out on the playoffs, finishing 4-6. But Craft's team showed enough positive signs and progress to make us optimistic about his future in Coal Mountain.
GAMES OF THE YEAR
- West Hall 24, Troup 21 (first round Class AAAA playoffs) -- Tony Lotti had already turned the Spartans into a winning, stable program, but this season saw his team take the next step, pulling off an impressive road postseason victory over a team then ranked inside the Class AAAA top 10. Thanks to huge nights from a number of players, including brothers AJ and Ashun Favorite, West Hall provided an astounding upset in the state bracket.
- East Hall 71, Fannin County 58 -- There was nothing but pride at stake in the two teams' season finale. But, boy, did pride ever put on a show. The two offensive juggernauts slugged it out until the end, rolling up 1,217 total yards and 129 points in a game that threatened to drag into Saturday. It was not a night for defense, but it was absolute heaven for an offensive coordinator.
- Mill Creek 31, McEachern 28 (quarterfinals, Class AAAAAAA playoffs) -- A battle throughout, this game provided huge plays in all three phases of the game. And for the Hawks to win on the road against one of the name teams in the biggest classification proved thrilling.
- West Hall 30, Dawson County 23 2OT -- The Spartans showed just how tough they could be, pulling off a pair of goal line stands in the overtime periods to get the win against a very talented Tigers squad.
- Jefferson 31, Gainesville 28 -- This was a game we circled the minute the schedules came out in the spring, and it lived up the billing, with the two longtime powerhouses trading big plays, bone-crunching tackles and plenty of roller-coaster momentum.
- Banks County 43, Elbert County 29 -- Heading into the season, few outside the Leopards locker room could have predicted this kind of finish against a team that entered the season ranked in the Class AA top 10. But Banks County pulled off perhaps its biggest win in years, charging back from an early deficit to win in the Granite Bowl and notch the No. 2 seed from 8-AA.
This category is reserved for those players who put up impressive seasons but maybe did not get the recognition they deserved due to various factors...
- Brad Davis, Sr. QB, Fannin County -- The Rebels finished 2-8, but it was not due to any lack of effort or ability in the passing game. Davis posted the second-highest passing yardage mark in all of northeast Georgia (trailing only Rabun County's Bailey Fisher). His 2,458 yards through the air was 32nd best across all classifications in the entire state. He also connected on 16 TDs and rushed for 415 yards and 6 TDs. This kid was perhaps the best player that few in the state heard about. A close second was his leading receiver Cooper Earls, who led all of northeast Georgia and was seventh best in the state with 1,190 yards receiving and 12 TDs.
- Dontae Wilson, Sr. DL/OL, Jefferson -- Frankly this award could go to the entire line of scrimmage on both sides for the Dragons, but if Wilson played quarterback, running back or receiver and dominated like he often did in the trenches, he would have been one of the most talked-about players anywhere. As it was, Jefferson fans knew that week-after-week, this dominator was anchoring the Jefferson line of scrimmage on both sides. He finished with 74 tackles and 13 tackles for loss on defense and helped anchor an offensive line that rushed for 231.6 yards per game.
- Noah Venable, Sr. RB, Jackson County -- Venable absolutely carried the Panthers offense at times this season, rushing for 1,381 yards and 10 TDs, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Venable helped push Jackson County back into the postseason on a team that averaged just 10.9 pass attempts per game -- in other words, the defense knew he was getting the ball more often than not, and they still had trouble slowing him down.
- Simon Holcomb, Sr. WR, North Forsyth -- For years, the Raiders built their reputation on a pounding ground attack, so for Holcomb to show out like he did at receiver says something about the direction of North Forsyth under new coach Robert Craft. Holcomb finished with 63 receptions for 1,015 yards and 9 TDs, averaging 16.1 yards per catch. Those were the second best numbers in all of northeast Georgia behind Fannin County's Cooper Earls.
- Keith Harris, Jr. LB, Gainesville/Kris Montague, Sr. LB, Gainesville -- We put these two together because there was no better linebacker tandem in the state, tackle-wise. Harris racked up 175 total stops (4th best in the state), while Montague added 150 (11th best), anchoring a unit that was tough as nails all season and gave the Red Elephants a chance to win almost every week. As it was, Gainesville extended its state playoff streak to 17 straight years -- and the play and leadership of Harris and Montague was a big reason why.
- Cameron Turley, Sr. QB Mill Creek -- He won't be playing collegiate football (though we bet he'll do more than OK for Georgia Tech baseball), and he didn't get a chance to sling the ball all over the field in a five-wide, spread attack. But when the Hawks needed Turley, he was there. Both as an athlete and as a leader. The senior leaves the program with about every passing record there is (he threw for 2,351 yards and 27 TDs this season), and helped guide the offense and the entire team to a level that few programs in the state can match, reaching back-to-back semifinals in the state's largest classification.
PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
OK, this is a tricky category, because some people want to talk about the best player as an MVP, while some just want to make it about accomplishments. As far as we're concerned, these players are a mixture of each -- and are also the guys that wowed us pretty much every week.
- Kyle Bacus, Sr. RB, North Hall -- As mentioned above, Bacus could flat take over a game, as his 1,676 yards rushing (the 10th highest total across all classifications, and certainly tops in northeast Georgia) and 18 TDs display. The Trojan back combined a rare combination of speed, strength and vision. And his willingness to work and lead made him something truly special.
- Bailey Fisher, Jr. QB, Rabun County -- Let's just say that Fisher vaulted himself into truly impressive territory this season. After an impressive sophomore campaign in 2015, Fisher became a true star in 2016, passing for 2,671 yards (22nd best across the entire state) and 29 TDs, against just 6 INTs. He also rushed for 1,029 yards and 21 TDs. The 3,073 total yards and 50 scores helped lead Rabun back to the state quarterfinals for a second straight season, matching the program's deepest ever postseason run.
- Coey Watson, Jr. QB, Dawson County -- Watson improved on a strong sophomore campaign with some jaw-dropping moments in 2016. He ended with 1,879 yards passing, 17 TDs, 5 INTs; 612 yards rushing, 15 TDs, and that's despite fighting injury and playing one less game thanks to those lightning problems in week 1. A tough customer, Watson is also a stellar leader and should only get better with another season to go.
- Cole Wright, Jr. QB, Union County -- Wright could have fretted about taking the reins from graduated star Joseph Mancuso (now at Richmond), instead the dual-threat simply put up numbers that made him one of the more explosive players around the state: 1,853 yards passing, 15 TDs against just 5 INTs; 1,450 yards rushing, 20 TDs. Wright was a huge reason why Union County not only survived the move up to Class AAA but thrived, reaching the state playoffs for a record fourth straight season.
- Colby Wood, Jr. RB/DB, Jefferson -- Wood didn't put up the jaw-dropping numbers of his sophomore season, when he rushed for over 2,000 yards. But his 1,642 yards and 20 TDs (6.9 yards per carry) proved even more impressive considering he helped lead his team into the state semifinals. Every carry seemed a pain for opposing defenses. Meanwhile his 3 INTs and 30 tackles on defense made him a thorn in so many opposing offenses' sides as well.
- TD Roof, Sr. RB/LB, Buford -- Talk about an impact player (and we mean it, as this guy arrived on the scene like a heat-seeking missle), Roof provided so many huge moments on both sides of the ball for the Wolves. And while his numbers -- 459 yards rushing, 11 TDs, 82 yards receiving; 54 solo tackles (84 total), 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 2 blocks, 2 deflected passes -- are impressive enough, they're even more eye-opening when you consider he missed time through injury and also spent several fourth quarters watching his younger teammates after the Wolves opened up big leads.
- Nick Lyles, Jr. RB, Chestatee -- The numbers were impressive -- 1,327 yards, 6.9 yards per carry, 15 TDs -- and he ripped off huge plays for the War Eagles all season, helping them to a dramatic turnaround and playoff run.
- Griffin Goodwin, Sr. QB, Banks County -- A leader and playmaker, Goodwin guided the Leopards' record-making team, finishing with 1,978 yards passing and 18 TDs.
- Zach Matthews, Sr. RB, Lumpkin County -- The battering ram that could also turn Ferrari followed up a tough junior campaign with the type of season that made him explosive as a sophomore. Matthews' work -- 1,352 yards rushing, 14 TDs -- helped the Indians compete to the end after a whirlwind coaching change prior to the season.
- Luke Martin, Sr. LB Dawson County -- Much like Roof, Martin arrived on the scene often and in a bad mood. His 149 tackles and 16 tackles for loss are impressive enough. But his leadership ability also marked him out as a big part of the Tigers' elevation as a program.
- The Mill Creek defense -- These guys were nasty, everywhere. As so many teams found, there were no weaknesses on a unit that both smothered and made big plays. What's more, they were considered the question mark heading into the season after graduating a number of playmakers from the 2015 unit.
- The Commerce offensive line -- It didn't seem to matter who ran the ball (and to be sure Commerce had plenty of talented back at its disposal), the Tigers cleared the path for all this season.
TEAMS OF THE YEAR
- Buford -- Yes, the Wolves finished the campaign with a disappointing loss in the Georgia Dome. But Buford also made history this season by winning its 10th straight state semifinal. And the Wolves also accomplished a lot for a team that dealt with injuries like perhaps no other in porgram history. It took an incredible Rome defense to halt their run in the title game.
- Jefferson -- The Dragons churned their way through almost every opponent like some runaway bulldozer/grain combine hybrid, bludgeoning and gashing just about every defense faced -- and everyone knew it was coming and still could do little about it. The Dragons' lines of scrimmage were something truly special to watch in action. If you love old-school, smashmouth football this was your team. Reaching its first state semifinal since winning a state crown in 2012 (and for just the fourth time in program history) provided the Dragons' faithful with something pretty incredible.
- Mill Creek -- The Hawks proved that 2015 was no fluke, marching right back to the semifinals where -- for the second straight season -- it lost to the eventual state champ in the largest classification. And Mill Creek did this after graduating a sizable and talented senior class from 2015. There's no doubt that the Hawks from Hoschton earned both esteem and set themselves up as a program to watch for some time to come.
- Rabun County -- The Wildcats only followed up arguably their best-ever season as a program in 2015 with arguably an even better one in 2016. And they did so after graduating an immensely talented senior class that included a future SEC player (as a freshman). The emergence of Bailey Fisher as a true star should have plenty of folks north of the (Tallulah) Gorge buzzing for what's to com.
WHAT WE'RE LOOKING FORWARD TO MOST IN 2017
How about everything... There are so many storylines to follow: How will Banks County, Chestatee, East Jackson, Lumpkin County and North Forsyth build on last year? Can Jefferson, with its standout running back and quarterback coming back, put itself right back in position for another run at the Final Four/championship? Can Gainesville, one of the programs in the area, regain its swagger after a -- by its lofty standards -- mediocre season? How will new coaches effect the programs at Flowery Branch, White County -- and, of course, Buford? With Fisher and some talented receivers coming back, will Rabun County continue its assault on Class AA? Can Mill Creek break through to a title shot? Will 7-AAA offenses be even better next year with this year's experienced youth coming back? The storylines are myriad -- is it August yet?