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Wednesday January 16th, 2019 3:12AM

2018 Football Year in Review: A season of 'what ifs' for area teams

By AccessWDUN
  Contact Editor

The 2018 high school football season in northeast Georgia was filled with thrilling wins, heartbreaking losses, achievements, disappointments, and a whole lot of great games and memorable performances.

However, in the end, many teams and fans may look back at the 2018 campaign and ask themselves, "what if?"

It was the first season for northeast Georgia teams since 2012 as a collective group where at least TWO teams DID NOT make the semifinal round in their respective classifications.

Flowery Branch is one team in particular. The Falcons were literally inches away from taking down No. 1-ranked and defending state champion Blessed Trinity (see below for some thrilling details) and despite a 21-20 loss in overtime they put themselves in the state championship conversation in Class 4A. But a slew of injuries against the Titans and the following week against Marist, and some untimely suspensions late in the season derailed their season as the personnel losses were too much to overcome in a first-round playoff loss to Ridgeland. What if they had remained intact over the final month of the season?

Commerce in Class A Public is another. The Tigers had No. 1-seed Irwin County on the ropes in their quarterfinal matchup in Ocilla but a late fourth-quarter fumble opened the door for the Indians to walk away with a 26-23 win in the waning seconds. What if the Tigers were able to get just one more first down?

Then there’s perennial power Buford, which saw its impressive 11-year semifinal run and its 35-game home playoff win streak going back to 2006 both come to shocking ends against Bainbridge in the Class 5A playoffs at Tom Riden Stadium. The Wolves, who had not trailed in a game since a loss to Archer on Sept. 21, fell behind early to the Bearcats and never led. But a blocked field goal and a turnover on downs in Bainbridge territory in the final minutes undid what was shaping up as a remarkable comeback. What if they make the field goal and send the game to overtime?

But there were some program-defining moments and some program-firsts for several teams in 2018 as well.

Riverside Military Academy recorded its first non-losing season (6-6) since 2009 and at the same time notched its first-ever Georgia High School Association playoff win, taking down George Walton in the first round of the Class A Private playoffs. That came two weeks after knocking off then No. 6-ranked Commerce (20-19) for the Eagles’ first-ever win over a ranked opponent.

North Hall, a playoff power during the early 2000s, got its first-ever road playoff win in 2018 with an impressive rout of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs.

Johnson snapped its program-worst 24-game losing streak in a win over Oglethorpe County in its opener, which set the stage for the Knights to register their best season (4-6) since a 6-4 finish in 2012.

In all, 12 teams advanced to the playoffs in 2018. Two teams -- Buford in 8-5A and Rabun County in 8-2A -- won region titles. Four others -- Dawson County in 7-3A, Jefferson in 8-3A, Union County in 8-2A, Commerce in 8-A -- finished second and received first-round playoff games at home. Buford, Rabun County, and Commerce, however, were the only ones to advance past the second round and all three were ousted in the quarterfinals in their respective classifications.

With all 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. 
Below are what we at AccessWDUN considered the top games of the season along with some of the area’s top performers in 2018.

Keep in mind that we were not able to attend every game of the 23 area teams we cover -- so forgive us (or email us: sports@jacobsmedia.net) if you feel we missed something -- but this is a comprehensive review of all that we were able to take in during 2018.

North Georgia offenses survive loss of star power

Much was made this past offseason about several key players who were graduating from some of northeast Georgia's top programs. There were questions about how Rabun County would manage without Bailey Fisher, how Dawson County would manage without Coey Watson, how Jefferson would manage without Colby Wood or how Flowery Branch would manage without its running back duo of Malik Damons and Malik Drayton just to name a few. The answer for all of those schools - just fine. The Wildcats filled Fisher's shoes with freshman Gunner Stockton, who helped guide a Rabun County offense that averaged about a half-point more per game than the 2017 unit and made it back to the state quarterfinals. Dawson County's top 2017 running back, Se'Vaughn Clark, stepped into Watson's role at quarterback and formed a dominant rushing duo with Ahmad Kamara, and the Tigers put up six more points per game than the 2017 squad and reached the second round. Flowery Branch relied on receiver Jalin Strown and Jefferson turned to a balanced option attack and both once again churned out over 30 points per game. Those teams, among others, showed that they have the talent and coaching to overcome key departures, which is something many of them will have to do again in 2019.

Habersham Central breaks through

The 2017 season was a haunting one for Habersham Central. The Raiders, who had not reached the postseason since 2011, featured one of the top offenses in the state and were competitive in nearly every game they played but could not find a way to finish, losing seven games by seven points or fewer on their way to a 2-8 campaign. Those same Raiders left no doubt about their fortitude in 2018. Habersham Central lost its season opener in familiar heartbreaking fashion to Dawson County, 32-28, but never looked back and won seven of their next ten games. Their first playoff berth in seven years was culminated with a 28-21 win over Apalachee in the regular season finale, a victory in a back-and-forth battle that served as a final exercising of the demons of 2017. Habersham Central went on to win their first road playoff game in school history and pick up their first playoff win overall since 2007 with a 35-0 shutout of Douglas County in the first round before losing to Creekview. Now that they've gotten over the hump, it should be fun to see what the Raiders can accomplish in the years to come.

Gainesville struggles early but shows signs of turnaround late

New Gainesville head coach Heath Webb knew that his first year would not be an easy one. The Red Elephants were possibly the youngest team in northeast Georgia, and one of the youngest in the entire state, with very few returning starters off of a 4-7 team from the year before. Couple that youth with a brutal schedule that saw Gainesville face three ranked opponents, two Class 7A teams, and two teams that reached the Class 6A semifinals, and the result was an 0-7 start that set school records for all the wrong reasons. While some wondered about the state of the program, Gainesville players and coaches continued to chop away and finally broke through with two thrilling wins over Winder-Barrow and Apalachee to get back into the playoffs for the 19th year in a row. The Red Elephants also nearly stunned semifinalist Lanier in a 6-2 loss in the regular season finale. Now Gainesville will be tasked with trying to turn that late-season confidence into more success in 2019, a season that will feature an equally tough schedule and plenty of new challenges. This Red Elephants program looks increasingly ready for those tests, though.

Near-upsets tell the tale of 2018 for northeast Georgia

In 2018, programs across Northeast Georgia showed that they're capable of beating just about anybody in the state. Unfortunately, many of the season's defining games were upset bids by area teams that came up painfully short. Dawson County was the first challenger, taking on Greater Atlanta Christian in a Week Eight matchup that would prove to be Region 7-3A's championship game. Despite a second-half rally, the Tigers came up short, 23-20. In the second round of the playoffs, Riverside Military and North Hall each took a crack at an upset. Despite falling down 42-3, North Hall rallied for a 30-7 run that was only cut short by the clock in a 49-33 loss to Cedar Grove. Riverside Military, meanwhile, lost a late 28-21 lead at Fellowship Christian to fall 35-28. Gainesville held a slim 2-0 lead over Lanier for much of the contest in the two teams’ season finale and the No. 2 seed and a home playoff game on the line. But a late fourth-quarter score by the Longhorns gave them a 6-2 lead and the Red Elephants last attempt to push across some offensive points was denied in the waning moments.

 

TOP 10 GAMES OF THE 2018 SEASON
(Voted on by the AccessWDUN Sports and News departments)

1. BAINBRIDGE 23, BUFORD 20 (Nov. 23) — Based purely on historical perspective this game gets the very slight nod as the top game in northeast Georgia in 2018. The Wolves were rolling through the playoffs coming off a dominating win over Kell in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs. Few gave the 5-loss Bearcats a chance. History was also against them as Buford was working on a streak of 11-straight semifinal appearances AND had a 35-game home playoff winning streak intact, both state records. Bainbridge apparently didn’t get the memo or just ignored the history. Special teams decided this one as the Bearcats blocked a punt for a safety, ran the second half kickoff back for a touchdown, and the Wolves had two botched field goal attempts in the second half. Bainbridge jumped on Buford for 16 first-quarter points to shock the home crowd early and never trailed. Buford managed to rally within 23-20 late but was stopped on downs in the final minute inside Bearcats territory to put an end to two of the state’s longest-running streaks.

2. RIVERSIDE MILITARY 24, GEORGE WALTON 14 (Nov. 9) — The Eagles won a state title in GISA in 2005 but they had never won a playoff game in the more prestigious Georgia High School Association. That ended in the first round of the playoffs as Riverside notched a stunning victory over fellow Region 8-A foe George Walton Academy in Monroe, a team it had never beaten. Running back Jordan Battle had a breakout game with 191 yards rushing. The Eagles defense, however, stole the show shutting out the Bulldogs in the second half while senior quarterback Isaac Teasley and Co. rallied them to the win.

3. BLESSED TRINITY 21, BRANCH 20 OT (Oct. 12) — Those that were there will tell you it was perhaps the best game of the season in northeast Georgia. It would be hard to argue against it. The defending state champion and No. 1-ranked Titans came in rolling but so did a high-flying Falcons team in a battle of unbeatens. The Falcons outplayed Blessed Trinity for most of the game but a pick-6 in the first quarter gave the Titans a 14-0 lead. Branch shut the door on Blessed Trinity after that and tied the game in the third quarter. The defenses dominated from there sending it to overtime. In OT, after the Titans scored, then the Falcons answered and went for a 2-point conversion and the win. But a pass from Elijah Gainey to C.J. Godwin sailed just over his fingertips. Despite the loss, the Falcons proved to the state that they could be considered as serious title contenders in Class 4A. Unfortunately, some significant injuries against the Titans and the following week against a powerful Marist squad derailed the Falcons’ promising season as they were undermanned by the time they got to the playoffs.

4. DAWSON COUNTY 17, NORTH HALL 10 OT (Nov. 2) —  It was billed as the battle of two power offenses -- it turned out quite the opposite. North Hall entered the contest as the No. 2 rated offense in Class 3A. Dawson was sixth. On the flip side, both also had a defense ranked in the top 8. To the surprise of many, this game ended in regulation with only two TDs and two FGs combined. It took overtime to settle the five-round bout. In the extra period, the Tigers showed the might of their offense, only needing two plays to score as Se’Vaughn Clark found a wide-open TJ Wilson for the go-ahead TD. Then it was back to the defense. Dawson’s Noah Brock plucked a double-reverse pass out of the air to seal the win for the Tigers.

5. HABERSHAM CENTRAL 35, DOUGLAS COUNTY 0 (Nov. 9) —  This first-round playoff gem was the first playoff win for the Raiders since 2007, their first-ever road playoff win, and their first shutout victory since 2010. It was a sweet validation for Raiders coach Benjie Harrison,  whose team dropped six games in 2017 by just 18 points. Harrison felt his 2017 squad was good enough for the playoffs and the 2018 unit put it together as they finished with their most wins (7) since 2007.

6. RABUN COUNTY 56, UNION COUNTY 28 (Nov. 2) — One of the premier regular season-ending matchups in the entire state. The Wildcats came in with the No. 1 offense in Class 2A and the Panthers at No. 2 in offense and were a top 5 defense as well. Oh, and it was for all the marbles in Region 8-2A and the key No. 1 seed. The teams also featured the top two passers in Class 2A in Union's Pierson Allison and Rabun County freshman Gunner Stockton. And the two gunslingers dueled early. Allison tossed a long TD pass on the first play for the Panthers while the Wildcats rallied to take a 14-7 lead before Allison tossed his second TD pass to tie the game. But it was the Rabun defense and special teams that turned the tide in the second and third quarters. The defense forced five consecutive punts by the Union offense and the Wildcats scored on all five of its next possessions to blow the game open as Stockton rushed for 4 TDs and threw for another in the blitz.

7. JOHNSON 38, OGLETHORPE COUNTY 0 (Aug. 17) —  It had no significance on the playoffs but did snap the Knights’ program-worst 24-game losing streak and helped spark them to their most wins (4) in a season since 2012.  Senior quarterback Sam Corbett rolled up three rushing touchdowns and senior Garry Daies added two more scores on the ground for the Knights in the season-opening victory.

8. GAINESVILLE 7, APALACHEE 6 (Oct. 26) —  It was a hard-hitting defensive struggle for a pair of teams battling for the final playoff spot in Region 8-6A. It became even more significant for the Red Elephants, who opened the season with a program-worst 0-7 start. A win the week before for GHS over Winder-Barrow to snap the skid set the stage for the Red Elephants to make a playoff run. They nearly knocked off eventual Class 6A semifinalist Lanier the following week in the finale before losing that one 6-2 in the final minutes. But Gainesville got help from Habersham Central to keep their streak of now-19 straight playoff appearances alive.

9. GREATER ATLANTA CHRISTIAN 23, DAWSON COUNTY 20 (Oct. 5) —  Some might say this one was the old Biblical tale of David vs. Goliath. After all, the Spartans had been the far superior team in Region 7-3A and were undefeated in region play for the past three seasons. Minus the explosive second quarter by the Spartans, this one had a different feel. A Dawson comeback commenced in the second half. The Tigers capped their second 90-plus yard scoring drive with a Dakota Sonnichsen 8-yard scamper to pull within 23-13. The Tigers successfully executed an onside kick, but the drive ended with wide-right 49-yard FG try that would prove to be huge. With the Spartans trying to burn the clock, Dawson DL Jason Browning ripped the ball out of GAC QB Justin Hardy’s grasp and the Tigers cashed in the turnover to pull within a field goal. But the Tigers could not recover a second onside kick ending a frantic comeback attempt against Class 3A's No. 3-ranked team.

10. NORTH HALL 41, LAKEVIEW-FORT OGLETHORPE 6 (Nov. 9) — North Hall didn’t shock northeast Georgia, but they did shock higher-seeded Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs. The Trojans ran away from LFO earning them their first-ever road playoff win. LFO’s game plan was to stop the Trojans rushing attack - it didn’t work. North Hall’s J.T. Fair chewed up 129 yards and two scores. Meanwhile, Daniel Jackson added 68 yards and a score, Drew Faulkner had 55 yards, and David Seavey rushed for 42 yards and completed 2 of 5 passes for 25 yards and a touchdown pass to Fair. The Trojans finished the night with 313 yards on the ground.

HONOR ROLL:

RMA 20, COMMERCE 19: A last-second goal-line stand on a 2-point conversion helped Riverside Military Academy stun Class A No. 6-ranked Commerce in a crucial Region 8-A North battle at Tiger Stadium. It was the first-ever win for the Eagles over a ranked GHSA opponent.

WHITEFIELD ACADEMY 33, CHEROKEE BLUFF 0: Although Whitefield Academy spoiled the opener for Cherokee Bluff with a win over the Bears, the game’s significance was bigger than the loss as it opened the inaugural season for the Bears, Hall County’s newest school.

WHITE COUNTY 48, WEST HALL 34: It turned out to be a huge game for both teams as the outcome was the eventual deciding factor for the final playoff spot in Region 7-4A. It helped snap West Hall’s five-year playoff run.

NORTH HALL 27, WHITE COUNTY 20: After falling behind 12 points in the first half, North Hall outscored White County 27-8 in the second half in the come-from-behind win over the Warriors in one of the area’s best rivalries. The victory evened the all-time series at 23 wins apiece.

TOP PLAYERS: 
(Listed in alphabetical order by last name.)

Jr. QB Pierson Allison (Union) — Allison led Class 2A in passing at the end of the regular season and only Rabun County’s Gunner Stockton (see below) was able to overtake him in the playoffs. Allison finished 2nd in Class 2A in passing with 2,840 yards and tossed 24 TDs. He added 719 yards rushing, which led the team, and 8 TDs.

Sr. RB Derrian Brown (Buford) — The shifty senior and Texas-commit showed flashes as a sophomore and a junior behind a pair of Division I prospects in Christian Turner and Anthony Grant. He got his turn in 2018 and proved he was as dominant as any runner in the state finishing with 1,876 yards rushing and 29 TDs.

So. QB Christian Charles (Chestatee) — A dual-threat player in the traditional sense. He can hurt any defense from any spot on the field. He was named the Region 7-4A Co-Offensive Player of the Year finishing with 1,781 passing with 7 TDs and 1,446 yards rushing, which lead Class 4A after the regular season, and 19 more TDs.

Sr. QB Sevaughn Clark (Dawson County) — The senior took on the responsibility of replacing Coey Watson under center and was a dual-threat. He and Kamara (see below) made for a deadly combination that was nearly unstoppable. Clark finished with 857 yards rushing with 15 TDs and added 936 yards through the air with 9 TDs passing.

Commerce running game — Nate Ray (727 yards rushing), Sam Roach (753 yards rushing), Caleb Mason (632 yards rushing) and DaJuan Wood (636 yards rushing) all had huge seasons in the Tigers’ potent wishbone attack. The Tigers averaged a whopping 6.4 yards per carry and had 51 rushing TDs as a team.

So. WR/CB Cam’rom Dabney (RMA) — Dabney is the Eagles’ future star and compiled 1,434 all-purpose yards with 8 TDs in his first full season at the varsity level. He also had 30 tackles and 4 INTs with 192 INT ret yards on defense on the season.

Sr. WR/DE Khalid Duke (RMA) — Duke was so dominant that he drew double teams on both sides of the ball during games. On offense, he finished with 1,024 all-purpose yards and 8 TDs and was second on the Eagles with 142 tackles, including 7 sacks and 17 TFL.

Sr. RB Quintavious Hayes (GHS) — The senior had an impactful season for the Red Elephants despite an offense that struggled to score points. Hayes finished with 1,001 yards rushing with 4 TDs behind an improving offensive line that could be one of the best in north Georgia in 2019.

Sr. HB Daniel Jackson (North Hall) — The senior posted 1,785 all-purpose yards with 23 TDs (18 rush). He also added 76 tackles with 2 INTs, 2 fumble recoveries, and caused 3 fumbles on defense.

Sr. WR/FS Austin Jones (Rabun) — The senior played nearly every meaningful down for the Wildcats during the season. He finished with 1,432 all-purpose yards with 12 TDs. He finished 2nd on the team in tackles with 105 with 1 INT and also had a punt return for a touchdown.

Sr. RB Ahmad Kamara (Dawson County) — A transfer to the Tigers in his final season he was part of perhaps the most dynamic 1-2 rushing punch in northeast Georgia, along with Sevaughn Clark (see above). Kamara finished with 1,418 yards and 17 TDs rushing.

Sr. DE Wookdong Harry Kim (RMA) — Kim was among the state leaders in tackles in 2017 and continued that in 2018 compiling 166 total tackles with an eye-popping 24 TFL, including 9 sacks, which led the team in all categories.

Sr. QB Trey Luttrell (Habersham) — Another true dual-threat, the senior led Class 6A in passing for most of the season before finishing with 2,577 yards passing with 28 TDs. He added 816 yards rushing with another  7 scores.

Jr. WR Seth Pressley (Chestatee) — Pressley combined with Charles above to form one of the most dangerous duos in the state. The junior wide receiver had 81 receptions for 1,189 yards -- among the state leaders in all classifications in both categories -- and led Class 4A at the end of the regular season in yards.

Fr. QB Gunner Stockton (Rabun) — The newcomer never really played like a freshman and eventually finished as the leader in Class 2A in passing with 2,917 yards, and 34 TDs. He added 709 yards rushing with 17 TDs -- and helped engineer a pair of playoff wins in his first two attempts.

Sr. QB Isaac Teasley (RMA) — The senior closed out his high school career in style passing for 1,618 yards and 11 TDs and adding 989 yards rushing with 12 TDs and helped lead the Eagles to their first-ever GHSA playoff win.

Jr. Safety Chase Dial-Watson (Branch) — Watson was a 1st-team All-Region 7-4A selection on defense finishing with 84 tackles (50 solo), 2 fumble recoveries, 4 INT and 1 INT ret for TD. In a limited role late in the season due to injuries, he also had 52 carries for 320 yards and 4 TDs on offense.

 

(AccessWDUN reporters Jeff Hart, Caleb Hutchins, Bo Wilson, Morgan Lee, Nate Roys, Joel Williams, B.J. Williams, Alyson Shields, and Brian Stewart all contributed to this article.)

(Seth Chapman, Ethan Thurmond, Bailey Pless, and Rocky Basto all provided the video.)

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