Rabun County football coach Lee Shaw is no stranger to state championship preparation. He guided the Flowery Branch Falcons to the Class AAA 2008 title game in the old Georgia Dome [a 28-14 loss to Cairo].
However, there was no experience to draw from last weekend when Shaw and his current squad of Wildcats were told to turn around and head home before the program’s first-ever state title game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Thanks to six inches of snow, the Georgia High School Association postponed six championship games scheduled for the weekend -- a first in 70 years of play --including Rabun County’s Class AA tilt against Hapeville Charter. The two teams now are scheduled to kickoff at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Frank Snyder Stadium in Tiger, where the Wildcats have won 20 straight games, including seven straight playoff games. Their last home loss came to Jefferson in the 2015 season opener.
AccessWDUN’s Jeff Hart reached Shaw in Tiger and discussed how the Wildcats have managed the unexpected extra time as they prepared for the biggest game in school history.
QUESTION: What was the mood like on the bus when you got the call to turn around and then when you heard later that day that the game had been postponed all together and was not going to be played at The Benz?
ANSWER: There was an initial shock because we were already halfway there basically. We also had a lot of fans that were already headed down (to Atlanta) for the weekend. There was some questioning of it all, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it except alter our plans. As for the kids, we just talked about still being able to play for a state title and that that was the main focus, not whether we could play in The Benz or not. Honestly, we don’t care where we play the game just so long as we’re in it. We discussed not making this any bigger than it is. I think by the time we got back to Tiger everyone was fine with the decision. The only thing we didn’t know was where it was going to be played.
Q: After that there was a coin flip, which has not been kind to y’all in the past, for home-field advantage. After y’all won the toss, what was the mood like then?
A: Tremendous excitement. We said the only thing better than playing in the state championship game was playing in the state championship game in Tiger. I’m a purest. When the coaches got to vote to move the championship games to the Dome (before the 2008 season) I voted to keep the semifinals there and play the title games at one of the team’s home stadium like they had been doing traditionally. For me this is kind of how it should be. It’s just a great opportunity for the kids and the community.
Q: Do you think having the home field at this time of year will be an advantage?
A: We certainly hope having the home field gives us an edge. We have had tremendous crowds and I know we’re going to have another big one on Friday night. The weather will be different than any of the other games that both teams have had to play in so it could be a factor. But, regardless, you still have to come out and play the game and execute. If you don’t do that, regardless of the weather and whether you are used to it, you will have a tough time winning.
Q: Has it been difficult with the extra week or has that helped your team get ready for the game?
A: The extra time for us is going to help. I can’t speak for Hapeville. 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. Getting a little bit healthier is also a part of it. Every team is banged up so an extra week for those guys can make a difference. 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.
Q: What do you see as the real keys to this game? Do you think it will be a battle of quarterbacks between (Rabun County senior) Bailey Fisher and (Hapeville senior) Hajj-Malik Williams? Are you expecting a shootout?
[Stats: Fisher: 3,145 yards passing, 40 TDs, 4 INTs; 1,175 yards rushing, 27 TDs; 67 of team’s 91 total TDs -- Williams: 2,331 yards passing, 24 TDs, 6 INTs; 408 yards rushing, 10 TDs; 34 of team’s 66 total TDs]
A: On paper Hapeville may have an advantage. They have several players with major Division I offers and are extremely athletic and talented. We don’t have that kind of high-profile roster. But, other than those handful of players, it’s pretty much an even game. Their quarterback is a tremendous dual-threat but is surrounded by other great players. Bailey, in my opinion, is the best quarterback in the state, but he is also surrounded by other great players. If both guys play well it should be a fun matchup to watch. Whoever is able to make more plays, as a team, and not give up big plays, will probably win it. As far as points, I have no clue on whether it ill be a high-scoring game or not. I know both offenses have been tough to stop, but we feel like our defense is better than most people give it credit for. We’ll find out on Friday night.
AccessWDUN's Friday Game Night will be on hand live at Friday's Class AA championship showdown and will be tweeting on our @FridayGameNight feed. We will also present postgame video highights as well as reaction from Tiger.