Here are five things we learned from the final week of the high school football regular season:
1. Dawson County, North Hall have defenses to match their offenses
Coming into Friday night's showdown between Dawson County and North Hall, much of the talk surrounded the two teams' offensive prowess, and deservedly so. Both teams entered averaging over 40 points per game on the season. However, it was the Tigers and Trojans defenses that turned Dawson County's 17-10 overtime win into one of the best thrillers of the season. While most knew that both teams featured capable defenses, seeing the two high-powered rushing attacks held to a combined 27 points with only one rushing touchdown being scored between the two teams all game was eye-opening. The game went into overtime due to a dramatic three-play goal-line stand by North Hall (8-2, 4-2 Region 7-3A) that forced Dawson County (9-1, 5-1 Region 7-3A) to attempt the game-tying field goal inside the final minute, and it was the Tigers defense that sealed the win with an interception near the end zone. If defense does indeed win championships, both Dawson County and North Hall should feel good about their chances to make deep playoff runs.
2. Speaking of defenses, Gainesville's is starting to shine
The Gainesville Red Elephants will be in the Class 6A playoffs, thanks to Habersham Central's win over Apalachee Friday night, but it was their defense in a last-minute loss to Lanier that has to have Gainesville players and coaches feeling good going into the postseason. The unit nearly pitched a shutout in the 6-2 loss and outscored Gainesville's offense, which was shut out, thanks to a safety late in the first half. It was the latest strong outing for a group that has started to look like a quietly outstanding defense over the last month of the regular season. The Red Elephants (2-8, 2-3 Region 8-6A) surrendered only 19 points combined in their final three games and accounted for 9 points of their own thanks to a defensive touchdown against Winder-Barrow and the safety against Lanier. Tough defense was something that first-year head coach Heath Webb no doubt wanted to bring to Gainesville, and it looks like it may have arrived just in time for the games that really count.
3. Habersham Central's late-game demons are officially gone
One of the stories across northeast Georgia last Fall was Habersham Central's struggles in close games. The Raiders lost eight games last season by an average of just over four points per game. Right now, those demons must feel like a distant memory to the faithful in Mt. Airy. Habersham Central (6-4, 3-2 Region 8-6A) sealed their first trip to the playoffs since 2011 with a 28-21 win in a back-and-forth battle against Apalachee Friday night. The game was tied 14-14 at halftime and again at 21-21 headed into the fourth quarter. It was a situation like the Raiders had seen so many times before, but this time they would not be denied. Running back Tracy Lowery capped off a 99-yard drive early in the fourth quarter with a 3-yard touchdown run to give Habersham Central a 28-21 lead it would hang on to for the win. The region schedule offered chances for Habersham Central to repeat their 2017 failures, but one of the marks of a winning team is the ability to learn from shortcomings. The Raiders clearly have that box checked.
4. Rabun County's offense is starting to look like a well-oiled machine (again)
Many programs would take a big step back offensively after losing a player of the rare caliber of former Rabun County quarterback Bailey Fisher. Rabun County is not one of those programs. The Wildcats sprinted away from Union County Friday night to capture their fifth straight region championship, and did so while piling up 56 points on a Panthers defense that was only surrendering 10 per game entering the matchup. After only scoring 10 points in a season-opening loss to Bremen, Rabun County (9-1, 7-0 Region 8-2A) has responded to average over 48 points per game on the year. Perhaps most impressive for the Wildcats is that they're doing it behind the arms and legs of the one tasked with replacing Fisher, freshman Gunner Stockton. Stockton threw an interception in the first quarter Friday night as Union County took an early lead, but he responded to throw two touchdown passes and run for four as well to lead the Wildcats to the win and the number-one seed for the playoffs. Will Stockton and the offense be able to guide Rabun County to another memorable playoff run? We will soon find out.
5. White County lost Friday night's battle, but won its war
The White County Warriors entered Friday night's game at top-ranked Blessed Trinity knowing that an upset win would be sweet, but a trip to the playoffs would be even sweeter. Despite a 42-7 loss to the Titans, White County still got to celebrate Friday night. The Warriors (3-7, 2-4 Region 7-4A) earned their second straight trip to the playoffs thanks to a Flowery Branch win over Denmark and a West Hall win over Chestatee. The postseason trip is the culmination of a roller coaster season in Cleveland, as White County suffered a number of heartbreaking losses and scored a couple of thrilling wins. Now in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs, they will travel to a Pickens team that handed them one of those heartbreaking losses, 42-35 back in week three. Very few teams get a chance at redemption against the same team within the same season, but the wild world of Region 7-4A has offered White County just that.