TIGER — All the magic and history of Rabun County's 2017 football season comes down to 48 minutes on Friday in front of its home fans.
After watching their shot at playing on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf derailed by winter weather last week, the Wildcats are itching for one more shot at glory, and are happy to do so at Frank Snyder Stadium in Tiger after winning a coin flip for home field advantage in the Class AA title game.
"This is a dream come true. Ever since you were a little kid you always dream of playing in a state championship game," Rabun County senior linebacker Gavyn Jones said. "Now we’ve worked all year; we’ve got that opportunity."
Rabun knows that its final obstacle is an imposing one in Hapeville Charter, but after defying history and statewide expectations this postseason the Wildcats will trust to their abilities and chemistry.
"We believe in ourselves — that’s the first thing coach Shaw said six years ago when he came back is that he’s got to get the belief back in Rabun County," Rabun senior quarterback Bailey Fisher said. "It just comes down to us executing the game, executing the game plan that the coaches lay out for us. And if we just keep playing Wildcat football we should be successful."
Wildcat football this season has been dominant on both sides of the ball.
Rabun enters the championship game with the No. 1 scoring offense (47.2 points per game) and No. 2 scoring defense (9.8 ppg) in Class AA and features playmakers on both sides.
Fisher will finish inside the GHSA's top 10 all-time leaders in career passing yardage and touchdown passes and has capped a brilliant career with another stellar season. The senior has 3,145 yards passing, 40 TDs and just 4 interceptions while completing 72 percent of his attempts. He also leads the team with 1,302 yards rushing and 27 scores. Cole Keener (52 receptions, 1,000 yards, 13 TDs) leads a receiving corps that includes five players with 20 or more receptions and eight that have caught scoring strikes.
Meanwhile, the Rabun defense feasts on mistakes. The Wildcats (14-0) have forced 35 turnovers so far this season -- including five interceptions in a 23-12 semifinal defeat of Brooks County -- and are yielding just 217.9 yards per game. Jones paces the unit with 136 total tackles, 12 for loss, while junior safety Austin Jones has 125 stops and 5 interceptions (Keener has 10 picks). Linebacker Dawson Henricks also has 117 tackles, 14.5 for loss.
Yet Rabun understands that Friday's test will be unlike anything it has faced so far this season.
"You just kind of take the best, maybe, of everybody that we’ve played and put it together and that’s Hapeville Charter," Wildcats coach Lee Shaw said. "All-star team. They’ve got them. They’ve got them in every position — not just offense but defense and their special teams play — very well-coached but very, very athletic. There’s a lot of D-I talent all over the field, and that’s what we’re going to face, and we know that’s what we’re going to face. So we’ve got to play our best football."
The Hornets (13-1) feature a lightning-quick quarterback in Hajj-Malik Williams (2,331 yards passing, 22 TDs, 5 INTs, 63 percent completion rate; 237 yards rushing, 6 TDs) and a talented group of running backs, including Marcus Carroll (535 yards, 5 TDs) and Harper Atkins (560 yards, 5 TDs). Kivante Johnson (43 receptions, 795 yards, 5 TDs), Andunte Devereux (35 receptions, 528 yards, 2 TDs) and Rory Starkey (24 receptions, 464 yards, 8 TDs) have also terrorized opposing defensive backs to help Hapeville score 36.5 points per game.
"Offensively they may come out in an 'I;' they may come out in kind of a wing-T look, or they may just spread you out in an empty or one-back and let the quarterback work," Shaw said. "He’s a really good quarterback and a dual-threat kid. But he’s got weapons all over the field, so you can’t really just sit on him. You’ve just got to play great defense and trust your keys and reads and tendencies and go from there."
And as good as the offense is, the defense is the main attraction. The Hornets are the top scoring defense in Class AA, yielding a paltry 7.7 points per game and feature two future Southeastern Conference players in defensive back Christopher Smith (Georgia commit) and defensive end Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina commit). Defensive lineman Caleb Kelley is also a highly-rated prospect.
"You’ve got to have some breaks; you’ve got to create your own breaks too. You’ve got to create some turnovers, possibly, field position, all the little things that coaches try to do," Shaw said. "And we’ve got to play hard. We’ve got to strike them, and that’s what we’ve been known for is to play great defense and put some points up on offense and be very efficient on special teams. But we can’t make mistakes; we can’t play behind the sticks. We’ve got to take advantage of opportunities, every opportunity we’ve got. And really kind of hold nothing back. This is the last game; there’s no next Monday practice, regardless, win or lose. This is it; this is what you coach for and play for, and a state championship opportunity. So you just try to do the best you can really."
The Wildcats best has astounded all season, making history for a program in its 69th season of play. And on Friday, the kids in the northeastern most corner of the state hope to astound the rest of GHSA.
RABUN COUNTY vs. HAPEVILLE CHARTER
CLASS AA STATE FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Frank Snyder Stadium, Tiger
RABUN: 14-0, Region 8-AA champ
HAPEVILLE: 13-1, Region 6-AA champ