For a Rabun County team that thrived all season on being opportunistic defensively and capitalizing offensively on those opportunities gained, Friday’s Class AA state championship game was a stark contrast.
An end-zone interception of Wildcats’ prolific quarterback Bailey Fisher on the team’s first drive gave way to Hapeville Charter scoring on the first of four straight possessions as the Hornets won the program’s first state title 35-23 at Frank Snyder Stadium.
“We made some mistakes and didn’t score when we had the opportunities,” said Rabun County coach Lee Shaw, playing in the second state title game of his career. “We couldn’t get off the field on third down and played behind the sticks most of the night.”
In so much as Rabun’s (14-1) first offensive drive was a sign of things to come on that side of the ball, the Wildcats defense pushed Hapeville Charter to four third downs and one fourth down on its first possession, but was unable to keep the Hornets out of the end zone.
Hapeville Charter (14-1) quarterback Haij-malik Williams was responsible for that first score - a 15-yard scoring strike to Antawan Smith Jr. - and finished the game 10-of-12 passing for 154 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 23 yards and three more scores.
The opportunities provided to Williams and offensive company were a direct result of a relentless defense that not only pressured Fisher to the tune of five sacks, but also got in the line of fire when Fisher had a chance to throw. The Hornets secondary picked Fisher off twice (he came into the game having only thrown four interceptions in 2017) and had several other pass breakups, while disallowing the big-play receivers for Rabun from getting behind them.
“We lost to a really good team tonight,” said Shaw, whose Wildcats were not only held to their second-lowest point total of the season, but also had the most points scored on them this season. “Hats off to (Hapeville Charter), they’re well-coached and athletic and earned this win and championship tonight.”
Rabun’s offense came into Friday’s championship scoring 47 points per game, but didn’t find its footing until late in the third quarter when Fisher found Braxton Hicks from 27-yards out to make the score 28-10 with 1:29 remaining.
The Wildcats were able to tack on two more scores in the fourth bolstered by a defense finally able to hold Hapeville Charter (which scored on five of its eight possessions and missed a 28-yard field goal attempt), but it proved to be too little too late.
“Our guys kept battling,” Shaw said. “They simply never gave up and a 14-1 record to show for it in the end is quite a legacy.’
Fisher finished the game 16-of-27 passing for 196 yards and three touchdowns, while also leading the team in rushing with 108 yards. For the season, the senior signal called amassed 3,341 yards and 43 touchdowns to just six interceptions, and rushed for 1,283 yards and 27 scores.
Speaking of the Wildcats senior class, they leave with a 26-4 record and the mark of having led the program to its first state title appearance.
“(The senior class) is incredible and showed such heart and passion for this program,” said Shaw. “They played for each other and considered this program as a brotherhood, even going back to the 1945 team. They set the bar a little higher than it was set before and I can’t wait to watch another group try and match it."