The 2017 high school football season was everything we hoped it might be and more.
There were shocks, thrills, gut-wrenching defeat and everything in between in a campaign that ended on a historical high.
North Gwinnett claimed its first ever state championship on the gridiron, Rabun County came awfully close (and made its first title game run), and plenty more northeast Georgia-based teams made lasting impressions.
If you liked offense, northeast Georgia also was the place to be on Friday nights. The area was home to the top two players in the state in all classifications in all-purpose yardage in East Hall quarterback Austin Parker (5,215 yards -- 4,563 pass, 652 rush) and Rabun County quarterback Bailey Fisher (4,618 yards -- 3,341 pass, 1,277 rush). In fact four of the top 19 all-purpose yardage leaders in the state played in northeast Georgia (No. 15 AJ Curry, Habersham Central -- 3,295 yards; No. 19 Cole Wright, Union County -- 3,081 yards). Seven of the top 48 and 13 of the top 96 players in all-purpose yardage came from northeast Georgia schools. That is an impressive figure considering there are over 400 schools statewide. There was also defense in abundance, including the state's leading sack artist in Winder-Barrow defensive end Logan Cash (23.5).
Following a 2016 season that ended with a disappointing thud in the championships, 2017 was a welcome tonic for plenty of northeast Georgia fans — and certainly those of us lucky enough to cover it for a living.
With that in mind, we’d like to take a look back at the season that was, and the moments, games and players that won’t soon fade from memory. Following is our account of this incredible season. Keep in mind that we were not able to attend every game of the 30 area teams we cover -- so forgive us (or email us: email@example.com) if you feel we missed something -- but this is a comprehensive review of all that we were able to take in during 2017.
Let’s start with the most fun aspect, and we’ll approach it from several angles. Who, at the start of the season, would have predicted a state championship for North Gwinnett and a title game appearance for Rabun County?
Sure the two teams had talent and respect, but with no previous crowns to their names, the only folks sizing up title shots for the Bulldogs and Wildcats resided in Suwanee and Tiger, respectively.
But the eye-openers hardly ended there.
East Hall and Winder-Barrow won state playoff games for the first time since 1993; Flowery Branch stormed back into state for the first time since 2013 and won a postseason game for the first time since 2011; and White County rebounded from four combined wins the past two seasons to win seven contests, reach the state playoffs and scare the heck out of a few stellar teams in coach Tim Cokely’s first season (and of their four losses, one came against a state champ, Blessed Trinity, two against state runners-up, Rabun County and Marist, and one against a state quarterfinalist, Jefferson).
Yet the biggest shock of the season had to come from one of the smallest programs.
Towns County entered 2017 with 65 total wins in 44 seasons of play — that’s slightly less than two wins a year. The Indians had never even sniffed the state bracket. And yet coach John Cornett told anyone that would listen during the preseason that his team was ready for history.
The Indians were more than ready, going 5-5 (their second best record in a season to date and by far their best against a region schedule) and capturing enough wins in the ultra-competitive Region 8-A to warrant the program’s first ever state berth.
GAME(S) OF THE SEASON
There were so many that it boggles the mind, so here’s our quick selection of the best of the best:
JEFFERSON 35, FLOWERY BRANCH 29 (Sept. 15) — It was the return of former Dragons coach Ben Hall to Jefferson against his friend and former assistant Gene Cathcart. Hall's Falcons took a 22-13 lead into the fourth quarter in a back-and-forth affair. But Jefferson senior defensive back Colby Wood, who had switched to guard Flowery Banch receiver Jalin Strown, made a touchdown-saving defensive play against Strown in the end zone on a potential bomb in the fourth quarter. Strown had torched the Dragons for 192 yards and one touchdown on just 4 catches up to that point. Wood then took over on the offensive end with 42-yards rushing, including a 2-yard TD run, to cap a 70-yard drive on the enusing possession to give Jefferson a 28-22 lead it would never relinquish. The win helped the Dragons prepare for a rugged Region 8-AAAA schedule and the loss showed the rebuilding Falcons they were ready to compete in Region 8-AAAAA.
WINDER-BARROW 24, LANIER 21 (Oct. 6) — It was a game that eventually decided home field in the playoffs in Region 8-AAAAAA. Winder-Barrow senior linebacker Sterling Sumpter blocked a potential game-tying field goal as time expired to preserve the win, which also helped secure a No. 2 seed and a home playoff game for the Bulldoggs for the first time since 1993. Sumpter's game-saving block came after Harlin Brown had booted a 24-yard field goal with 10:42 left in the game that provided the margin of victory.
GAINESVILLE 30, HABERSHAM CENTRAL 27 (Oct. 6) — It was a tough season for both programs, but that did not diminish the importance or excitement of this game, as it was essentially an elimination contest for the playoffs. Trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter — following inspired play from the Raiders offense and QB AJ Curry — the Red Elephants sprang to life and connected on an 81-yard touchdown pass between Tre Luttrell and Trey Blackwell — on fourth down. GHS then carved out just enough yards to set up a 36-yard game-winning field goal from Christian Jaimes. The win helped Gainesville to maintain its state playoff streak at 18 straight.
TOWNS COUNTY 28, ATHENS CHRISTIAN 27 (Oct. 13) — This was the game that sealed the Indians' historic playoff berth, and boy did it require some late heroics from Towns County, as it trailed 27-14 in the fourth quarter. The Indians pulled off an 85-yard touchdown pass and then a a 40-yard halfback pass to knot the score at 27-27 -- the PAT giving the Indians the defining point of the contest. A game that should live on for the history of Towns County football.
DAWSON COUNTY 56, EAST HALL 48 (Oct. 20) — A Region 7-AAA barn-burner that came down to the last play of the game when the Tigers picked off the Vikings in the end zone to seal the win. It had all the elements of a great game: playoff implications, explosive offenses, playmakers on both sides of the ball and two of the best quarterbacks in the state slugging it out. The win helped ensure a No. 2 seed for the Tigers.
WHITE COUNTY 33, WEST HALL 28 (Oct. 27) — Warriors running back Kaleb Crane scored three second half touchdowns, including one with just 1:05 left in the game, to help White County rally for a thrilling win at White County Stadium. The Spartans battled throughout, trading leads and taking a 28-27 advantage with just over five minutes to play. The game made White County a three seed, West Hall a fourth seed for the playoffs.
WESTMINSTER 59, EAST HALL 57 (Class AAA second round) — Yes, this was a loss for an area team, but the game was absolute dynamite from the opening possession, and showed the rest of the state that, following a first-round state playoff upset victory, the Vikings were absolutely no fluke. Austin Parker completed six touchdown passes and ran for another, while Cambren Harrison also added a rushing score. A third quarter field goal proved the difference in a contest that had announcers breathless in trying to keep up, and, despite the loss — which denied East Hall its first state quarterfinal berth since 1993 — East Hall could most definitely walk off the field heads high.
BUFORD 20, STOCKBRIDGE 17 (Class AAAAA quarterfinals) — It was the Class AAAAA quarterfinal the entire state had looked forward to once the brackets were published, and it proved as riveting as expected. The Wolves gritted their teeth and showed impressive determination against a talented and fired-up Stockbridge squad that took the lead on the contest’s first play from scrimmage via an interception and score. Take away three big plays from the hosts, and Buford largely dominated, but the Wolves had to earn it after trailing 14-0. It was the type of heavy-weight slugfest in the trenches that offensive linemen — especially at Buford — love. And the Wolves would not be denied rushing for 200 yards and out-gaining the Tigers 326-182.
RABUN COUNTY 23, BROOKS COUNTY 12 (Class AA semifinals) — For a moment it looked as if the weight of the Wildcats’ first ever state semifinal appearance was getting to Rabun, as the hosts fell behind 5-0 courtesy a field goal and a safety. But the Wildcats took a deep breath and stormed into the lead just before halftime — and never turned it loose. Bailey Fisher did his normal thing, completing 15 of 20 passes for 234 yards and a TD (and what a score that was, as Austin Jones broke six tackles en route to a 74-yard jaunt to the end zone) and rushing 21 times for 56 yards and two scores. But it was the night the rest of the state saw just how good Rabun’s defense was, as they picked off five passes and limited a Brooks team averaging just over 200 yards rushing to 84 yards on the ground.
But our pick of THE game of the year has to be:
NORTH GWINNETT 19, COLQUITT COUNTY 17 (Class AAAAAAA championship) — This one had some great defensive plays, some huge offensive plays, enough mistakes by both teams to create in-game drama, and of course a game-winning field goal with no time left by an injured kicker who had missed two kicks earlier in the game. What more could you ask for. Like in the semifinals against McEachern, the Bulldogs fell behind early as the Packers took a 3-0 lead. North Gwinnett tied it at 3 by halftime on a field goal by Cameron Clark, but Clark also missed a field goal earlier in the half. The teams traded scores and defensive haymakers into the fourth quarter but the Bulldogs looked to get the potential game-winner on a Cameron Butler 1-yard run with just 5:50 left for a 16-10 lead. But Clark's extra point sailed wide to leave the door open for the Packers. They obliged as Josh Hadley caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from UConn-commit Steven Krajewski to cap a 5 minute, 80-yard drive with just 49 seconds left for a 17-16 lead after a successful PAT. But in one of the most astounding endings ever to a championship final, Clark, who suffered an injury in pre-game warmups, would get his redemption. The Packers defense committed penalties on four consecutive plays in the final 32 seconds, including a pass inteference call with no time left, that setup a 38-yard field goal by Clark with no time on the clock. The kick wobbled and defied gravity just long enough to crawl over the crossbar for the game-winner and their first-ever state title.
TEAM OF THE YEAR
There are several deserving squads in northeast Georgia this season, so we’re going to make a few exceptions before announcing the winner.
Most Improved: North Hall — The young Trojans went from 0-4 at one point in 2017 to a No. 3 seed and state playoff team, quite the rebound.
Hard-Luck Heroes: Habersham Central — The Raiders went just 2-8 this season, but look at the scores. The Raiders lost their eight games by a combined 37 points — that’s an average difference of 4.6 points per game (take away a 40-28 loss to Winder-Barrow and that sinks to 3.5 per loss). Coach Benji Harrison and his Raiders are literally about three plays away from a state berth.
From Wobbly to Steady-Eddies: Dawson County/West Hall/Winder-Barrow — Sid Maxwell and his staff have reshaped the Tigers into a force in three seasons, taking a program that had one state playoff appearance in the last 10 seasons and won a region title (in 2015) and now made three straight playoff appearances, with three postseason wins in that span. Meanwhile, despite a huge turnover in the starting line-up from a season ago, the Spartans marched back into state for the fifth straight season. Coach Tony Lotti, his staff and players have made West Hall into a postseason staple. Meanwhile the Bulldoggs, in Heath Webb’s fourth season, not only claimed their fourth straight state spot but also won a playoff game to reach the Sweet 16 — their first postseason success since 1993. Both of these programs recently underwent 10-year skids missing the playoffs, until Lotti and Webb arrived.
On the rise: White County, Flowery Branch — new coaches (Tim Cokely and Ben Hall, respectively) reinvigorated these two programs and took them back to the playoffs after absences.
Defying history: Towns County seniors will never forget the year they made history for the Indians to put together by far the most impressive season in program history.
And yet two other squads did things previously unmatched in program history and swept northeast Georgia football up in an incredible journey:
Rabun County and North Gwinnett
The Wildcats reached their first ever state championship game, doing something previously thought impossible for a “mountain school” — at least outside of the mountains.
The Bulldogs, well, they only won a region title and then their first-ever state championship, knocking off a Colquitt County team that has made a habit out of titles in the last few years.
DO YOU HAVE TO LEAVE SO SOON?
These are the players that made incredible impressions on us during their careers here in northeast Georgia — even if in, some cases, it was just one stellar season (though that is rare indeed). These are the guys that thrilled us on so many Friday evenings, and we absolutely hate to see them graduate. (NOTE: there are a few names that would also be here but are listed in a separate category.)
Colby Wood, running back/cornerback, Jefferson — Both tireless and explosive, Wood leaves as one of the greatest Dragons of all-time with 5,786 career yards rushing and 79 TDs (15th in state history). He also caught passes, racking up 852 yards and 10 TDs and had 90 career touchdowns. He was also a shutdown cornerback when required. One of the players that has helped turn Jefferson from regional to state power.
Nick Lyles, running back/safety, Chestatee — An explosive player on both sides of the ball, Lyles was just so much fun to watch, as he never stopped moving even when defenders were trying to tackle him. And that was true again this season as he rushed for 1,317 yards and 22 TDs and caught two touchdown passes. He also had 46 tackles on defense and a few highlight reel hits. His play was a key to Chestatee's resurgence in coach Shaun Conley's first two seasons.
Coey Watson, quarterback, Dawson County — If you wanted a dictionary definition of leader, this guy would be it. A gifted athlete that made plays with his legs and arm, it was his grit and fire that helped make the Tigers into a playoff stalwart in his three seasons of starting. The dual threat finished 2017 with 1,732 yards passing and 16 TDs, while also rushing for 706 yards and 14 scores. Over three full seasons as a starter Watson amassed 5,838 yards and 82 TDs passing, along with 1,822 yards and 40 TDs rushing. But it was his contributions to the program's first region title, state quarterfinal appearance (both in 2015) and the rise of the Tigers as a power that were most impressive.
Brock Landis, quarterback, Winder-Barrow — It’s no coincidence that the Bulldoggs ascent into playoff regular and a team capable of pushing for region titles coincided with Landis’ grasping of the reins as quarterback. Another talented athlete, Landis passed for 2,204 and 19 TDs this season, as well as rushing for 524 yards and 8 scores. He only scratched the surface of his abilities in his three seasons as Winder's starting signal caller, but he was undoubtedly a competitor -- and a successful one.
Anthony Grant, running backs/linebacker, Buford — Grant had former coach Jess Simpson almost salivating about his abilities as a sophomore, “just a true football player,” Simpson said. That he was and more. He led Buford in both rushing (almost 1,000 yards and 20 TDs) and tackles (87) and tackles for loss (9) this season as a senior and made life miserable for plenty of non-Buford football players. An All-State performer that just never stopped giving 100 percent.
Christian Turner, running back, Buford — Grant’s backfield cohort made the kind of big plays and runs that light up video reels (go back and see last year’s semifinal win over Carrollton for two prime examples), and, had he played on a team that needed him to carry the ball 20 times a game (instead of the 8 he averaged), his numbers would have been extraordinary. As it was he was still one of the most explosive players in northeast Georgia over the last few seasons.
Malik Damons/Malik Drayton, running backs, Flowery Branch — The two-headed running back monster helped lead the Falcons back to the upper echelons of teams in Class AAAAA, as they combined for 2,155 yards (1,365 for Damons) and 32 touchdowns (19 for Damons). A prototypical thunder and lightning combo, they were almost impossible to stop for opposing defenses. They really came into their own under new head coach Ben Hall's power rushing attack.
Noah Venable, running back, Jackson County — The senior saw his final campaign hampered by injury but still rolled up 1,399 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, which says just how dominant he was for the Panthers, following up on 1,381 and 10 TDs as a junior. Jackson County made the state playoffs in each season, and Venable's play was certainly a big reason why.
AJ Curry, quarterback, Habersham Central — In just one season of varsity play at the position, the rangy athlete produced an incredible campaign, passing for 2,495 yards and 15 touchdowns — enough to earn a scholarship offer for the next level. Imagine how incredible he would have been with more time in coach Benji Harrison's system. As it was he finished as an All-State honorable mention this season -- after already wowing as a receiver at Stephens County.
Cole Wright, quarterback, Union County — Wright stepped into the breach left by Joseph Mancuso’s graduation following 2015 and kept the Panthers high-octane offense rolling. More apt to use his legs than his predecessor, Wright was equally capable with his arm, as he showed this season, passing for 1,940 yards and 19 TDs while also rushing for 1,141 yards and 14 scores. In two seasons he passed for 3,793 yards and 34 scores, while also rushing for 2,591 yards and 34 TDs. An All-State honorable mention performer.
Sedrion Morse, receiver, East Hall — Blessed with size (6-3, 207 pounds), speed and hands, Morse tortured many an opposing defensive back over the past two seasons. As a senior he caught 67 passes for 1,362 and 22 scores, finishing amongst the state leaders in yardage. Named first-team All-State in 2017.
Ben Bales, quarterback, North Forsyth — Bales developed himself into one of the most consistent passers in the state and showed it his senior season, leading GHSA’s largest classification in passing yardage for much of the season with 3,024 yards and 24 TDs.
Keith Harris, linebacker, Gainesville — Part junkyard dog, part heat-seeking missile, Harris was in on so many tackles over the course of his career that it seemed strange when his number wasn’t involved in a stop for the Red Elephants. He even moonlighted with some important carries as a bruising running back this season. He was honored with an All-State honorable mention selection in 2017.
Alec Bornhorst, quarterback, Lakeview Academy — The dual-threat senior was named the Region 8-A offensive player of the year this season and did much to help a young and growing program into a contender in a ridiculously-competitive Region 8-A.
SALIVATING TO SEE MORE
These are the players that showed us something special (more of the same in some instances), and the guys we can’t wait to see back on the field again in 2018.
Logan Cash, junior defensive end, Winder-Barrow — You don't lead the state in sacks -- not this state, anyway -- without being a special kind of player. Well Cash is certainly that, an explosive pass-rusher, Cash tallied 23.5 sacks this season. But he's not just a third-down specialist as he showed by also leading the Bulldoggs in total tackles with 101, 74 solo stops. Basically, if it doesn't wear a Winder uniform and carries the ball, he's going to tackle it.
Austin Jones, junior safety/receiver, Rabun County — Instrumental in helping to lead the Wildcats to their first-ever state championship game appearance, his 36 receptions, 693 yards and 7 TDs all were third-best among a talented group of receivers and he owned the longest play of the season for the Wildcats on a 74-yard TD catch. On special teams he racked up 488 punt return yards and 3 scores. But he was just as impactful on the defensive end with 135 total tackles (second-best on the team) with 8.5 TFL and 5 interceptions.
Sevaughn Clark, junior running back, Dawson County — The 6-foot, 200-pounder exploded onto the scene in 2017, churning out 1,789 yards, which was good for eighth in the state in rushing for all classifications, to go with 16 TDs. He also added 12 catches for 142 yards as a safety-valve out of the backfield.
J Ben Haynes, freshman quarterback, White County — New Warriors coach Tim Cokely took a chance on the 6-1, 145-pound newcomer and was rewarded with a breakout season. Haynes, who did not play football until the eighth grade, looked comfortable right from the start and finished 125-for-202 (51.8 percent) for 1,796 yards, 15 TDs, and 6 INTs.
Cambren Harrison, junior running back, East Hall — At 6-1, 230-pounds, Harrison was a wrecking ball for opposing defenses. He exhibited both brute power (18 rushing touchdowns) and soft hands out of the backfield (45 receptions, third-most on the team). His combined 1,944 yards (1,150 rushing, 794 receiving) were good for 13th in Class AAA and only Liberty County's Kris Coleman (2,118 yards) and Clark of Dawson County (1,960 yards) had more all-purpose yards in AAA as running backs.
Derrian Brown, junior running back, Buford — If he had been anywhere else Brown would already be a primary feature back. But Brown split reps with FBS prospects Turner and Grant. Brown still finished second on the team in rushing yards (850-plus yards) and touchdowns (11). He also added 146 return yards on the season. He may get a chance to see what he can do as the featured back in 2018 as his rush yards are more than the rest of the Wolves' returning ball carriers combined.
Michael Thompson, sophomore quarterback, West Hall — The 6-1, 215-pound dual-threat player had a tough task in taking over for 3-year starter Jacob Satterfield. And he helped engineer wins over playoff teams Jackson County and Dawson County. The numbers weren't gaudy with 716 yards and 7 TDs rushing and 527 yards passing, but the potential is there for Thompson, who showed plenty of positive signs over the final three weeks, for a breakout year in 2018.
Elijah Gainey, sophomore quarterback, Flowery Branch — Gainey was a surprise starter coming out of the fall camp after Nick Lance moved to tight end. He showed that first-year coach Ben Hall did not make a mistake helping guide the Falcons to their first playoff appearance since 2013 and a home playoff game. Gainey passed for 1,524 yards with 11 TDs and 8 INTs but he and junior Jalin Strown made for one of the area's most lethal combinations as Strown was a deadly deep threat with 33 recpetions for 735 yards and 7 TDs and a whopping 22.3 yards per catch.
David Seavey, junior quarterback, North Hall — In the traditional wing-T offense the Trojans run you would think Seavey would make his mark on the ground. Not so. Seavy demonstrated that the Trojans can work in a highly-effective passing game for an even more potent offensive attack. Seavy was just the seventh leading rusher on the team with 110 yards but showed off an accurate arm in going 56-for-84 (67 percent) for 851 yards and 3 TDs on the season. The Trojans do graduate their top three rushers and top three receivers but expect coach David Bishop to find some new targets for Seavey.
Christian Charles, freshman quarterback, Chestatee — It's a small sample size (34-for-67, 499 yards passing; 49 car., 395 yards rushing) but Charles, who was the backup to Storm Yarbrough and forced into the starting role the final two games due to injuries, showed he could be one of the young dynamic players in 2018. Charles helped produce 30 points of offense in the season finale against eventual state runner-up Marist, the most points allowed by Marist all season. Charles should continue to grow into his 5-11, 155-pound frame and has the tools to develop into a star.
Tyler Goodson, junior running back, North Gwinnett — Goodson proved no moment is too big for him as he was an unstoppable force in the playoffs and was an integral part of the Bulldogs Class AAAAAAA state title run. He had nearly half of his 1,315 rushing yards, good for fourth in AAAAAAA despite missing three games, in the playoffs. He also proved adept in the passing game with 18 catches for 331 yards and 4 TDs. The Bulldogs will need even more from him in 2018 as they will be breaking in a new quarterback and several key players on the offensive line.
Bryson Trigg, junior running back, North Forsyth — The 6-foot, 180-pounder finished 18th in Class AAAAAAA with 948 yards and 10 TDs on 185 carries to complement the classification's top passer in Ben Bales. But Bales is moving on after graduation and Trigg could get an even heavier workload in 2018 while the Raiders break in a new signal-caller. He was just a few carries from a 1,000-yard season in 2017 and there is no reason to expect he won't shatter that ceiling in his senior season.
Kameron Brown, junior linebacker, Lanier — At a program known for dominant defense, Brown is the latest to carry the mantle of dominant defender. He led the Longhorns with 116 tackles this season, and we expect him to pick right back up where he left off in 2018. The younger brother of former All-State defensive tackle Derrick Brown was an All-State honorable mention player in 2017.
Aaron McLaughlin, freshman quarterback, Buford — This kid is unafraid to make plays, and he made a lot of them in his first varsity season in 2017. Most first-year starters could only dream of passing for over 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns while also rushing for four scores in helping their teams to a state semifinal berth. But that's what McLaughlin did, and it certainly appears that there is plenty more of that in store.
PLAYER(S) OF THE YEAR
Another impossible task. There were an incredible amount of playmakers in northeast Georgia this season. And of course every team also has underrated playmakers and unsung heroes that, without them, big seasons are impossible — guys like North Gwinnett quarterback Jimmy Urzua, a career back-up until Cade Fortin went down early in the season with injury. Urzua only put together a stunning season to help capture a state crown.
Yet a handful of players put together extraordinarily dominant campaigns, transcending good to truly great, from what we saw in these guys:
Bailey Fisher, senior quarterback, Rabun County — Like some of the other jaw-dropping stars to have quarterbacked northeast Georgia teams to state titles and championship games in years past (Deshaun Watson, Bryant Shirreffs, Connor Shaw), Fisher was equal parts other-worldly athlete, film room warrior and unquestioned leader. The numbers from this season alone boggle the mind: 4,618 total yards -- 3,341 pass, 1,277 rush -- and 70 total touchdowns. He became a quasi-celebrity in his own community (though not by the unassuming senior's design) while leading the Wildcats to their first state championship game and the sort of domination never seen in the north Georgia mountains. And when Rabun County youth fall asleep at night you can rest assured a number of them are dreaming of becoming the next Fisher.
Kaleb Crane, senior running back, White County — Anyone that watched White County play this season with any regularity knew it was coming; the other team knew it too -- and yet there was precious little opposing defenders could do to stop it. At some point this season Crane would start to take over the game. A powerful battering ram enclosing a Ferrari engine, Crane took to new Warriors coach Tim Cokely's offense like the proverbial duck to water, rushing for 1,628 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 23 TDs, while also catching 12 passes for 189 yards and 2 TDs. His play was a huge part of the Warriors' resurgence this season, and he left a high bar for future White County backs.
Jayden McDonald, senior linebacker, North Gwinnett — McDonald signed with Rutgers five days after helping the Bulldogs win their first-ever state title. McDonald was a one-man wrecking crew at times in the playoffs. He nearly single-handedly won the Grayson game in the second round of the playoffs (13 tackles, 7 TFL, 5 sacks) and had two fumble recoveries (one for a strip and score TD) vs. McEachern in the semifinals. McDonald showed his presence in the championship game with two huge sacks and 4 QB hurries. The Bulldogs do not win a state title without McDonald's playoff efforts. When Bill Stewart came to Suwanee in 2017, he targeted playing physical, aggressive defense -- McDonald embodied that.
Austin Parker, senior quarterback, East Hall — This underrated athlete jumped onto the scene as a junior and continued that ascent in his final season leading the entire state, all classifications, in passing yards with an eye-popping 4,563 yards (380 yards per game), 50 TD passes and just 3 INTs during the season. He also ran for another 652 yards and 6 TDs. The first-team All-State selection wasn't a one-man show by any stretch for the Vikings, who won their first playoff game since 1993. But he nearly took down Westminster in a 59-57 loss on the road in one of the great performances of the season when he threw for 537 yards and 6 TDs and ran for another 62 yards and a score for 599 total yards. For some quarterbacks that's a career. It was just another night on the girdiron for the humble Parker.