The Rabun County and North Gwinnett football teams were not supposed to be playing this week. In fact, no one was.
Both the Wildcats and Bulldogs had been hoping for record-setting celebrations after winning their first-ever state titles.
But last week’s snow that blew through north Georgia also blew six state championship games right out of Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium -- including their matchups in Class AA and Class AAAAAAA -- and back to on-campus stadiums for the first time in a decade.
Rabun County plays host to Hapeville Charter in Tiger, while North Gwinnett entertains Colquitt County in Suwanee. Both games are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. kickoffs on Friday. The Wildcats, Region 8-AA champs, won a coin flip to host the game over the Region 6-AA champion Hornets. The Bulldogs earned the host site as the No. 1 seed from Region 6-AAAAAAA while Colquitt County was the No. 3 seed from Region 1-AAAAAAA.
It was a tough and controversial decision for the Georgia High School Association but both the Wildcats and Bulldogs are part of a dozen teams that are now trying to prepare for outdoor finals for the first time since 2007.
Despite the unusual bye week, both Rabun County coach Lee Shaw and North Gwinnett coach Bill Stewart said it has been business-as-usual as their teams prep for the finale -- at least as close to business-as-usual as a state title game can get.
“We’re trying to have the same mindset we have during the regular season,” Shaw said. “There was some initial disappointment of course but (the kids) got over that pretty quick. Other than it was supposed to be (in Mercedes-Benz) and now it’s at our place there’s not much difference.”
“Our routine is the same,” Stewart confirmed. “Go over the opponent on Monday, start working on game plan on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then get ready for a Friday game. Obviously it’s the biggest game of the year, but really it’s been just like any other week as far as preparation.”
Shaw took it one step further, noting that the changes also provide an opportunity for younger players on the roster to get an extra week of work.
“This makes it almost like six playoff games, which means we’ve gotten more than another half a season for our young guys to know the system and practice and get better,” Shaw said. “Plus, this also gives us more time to focus and refine our game plan some. I’m sure Hapeville is probably doing the same, but we’re only worried about what we do.”
Both the 'Cats and 'Dogs smoked through their respective playoff brackets. Does either worry about having their momentum stunted with the extra layoff?
“Not really,” Stewart said. “We’ve been pretty consistent so I don’t think the time off will hurt. Hopefully we can fine-tune ourselves a little in the process.”
“I don’t think it will hurt either team in any way,” Shaw said. “You have a few extra days to maybe get some guys healthier, so that’s an advantage, but other than that it’s just another week of practice.”
At some of the venues around the state, more controversy has arisen around ticket sales. The GHSA said it would honor tickets sold for the Mercedes-Benz games at any stadium on Friday night, but, as in the case of the Lee County-Coffee matchup in Class AAAAAA, more tickets were sold than is the capacity of Lee County's Trojan Field in Leesburg. The Class AAAAA game is experiencing the same issue in Warner Robins as Rome, who had nearly 10,000 fans ready to enter The Benz on Friday, is already being told that McConnell-Talbert Stadium in Warner Robins will not be able to accommodate those kinds of numbers.
(NOTE: For a look at Rabun's ticket procedures, click on the photo box to the left.)
Shaw said fortunately they have not heard of any issues so far for their matchup in Tiger.