Monday March 25th, 2019 8:42AM

Area teams ready to begin Road to Mercedes-Benz

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
  Contact Editor

The REAL road to Mercedes-Benz for area and state football teams begins this week as the first round of the playoffs gets under way Friday night.

And a dozen northeast Georgia teams in six different classifications, seven if you count the split of Public and Private in Class A, will be among those vying for state titles.

There are several perennial playoff teams like Commerce, Buford, and Gainesville, who all kept long playoff streaks alive. Commerce is making its 22nd consecutive postseason, Buford qualified for its 20th straight appearance, and Gainesville, which rallied from an 0-7 start, stormed into its 19th consecutive playoffs by winning two of its final three games and getting some help from Habersham Central.

Still, others are making their first postseason appearances in many a moon. Riverside Military Academy, on the strength of an upset win over Commerce two weeks ago, is making its first playoffs since 2009. Habersham Central in Class 6A is making its first appearance since 2011.

In Class 6A, Habersham Central (6-4) claimed the No. 3 seed in Region 8-6A. The Raiders rebounded in 2018 with a 6-win season after going 2-8 in 2017 and dropping six games by just 18 total points.

Habersham coach Benjie Harrison said they are excited about the challenge and opportunity after a long seven-year drought. The Raiders will travel to Douglas County (8-2), the No. 2 seed from Region 5-6A in the first round.

“First, I’m just really happy for these kids,” Harrison said. “They’ve worked hard and took what they learned from last year into this season. They matured a lot. They’ve been a little more consistent and made a few more plays. That's been the big difference.

“The community is extremely excited and has been super encouraging. I think we have a good chance. We’re looking forward to it.”

The Raiders still possess one of the classifications best offenses behind senior quarterback Tre Luttrell, who is in the top 5 in Class 6A in passing with 2,014 yards (23 TDs, 5 INTs). Habersham sits 16th in scoring in 6A (295 points, 29.5 points per game) but only Valdosta (333, 33.3 ppg) has yielded more points than the Raiders (305, 30.5 ppg) on defense among Class 6A playoffs teams.

“If we’re on offensively, we feel we can score on anyone,” said Harrison, whose team is 6-0 when scoring 28 or more points but 0-4 when scoring less than 28. “That’s an interesting stat but it’s really more about what we do. We’ll see how it goes next week.”

Meanwhile, Gainesville (2-8) slipped in as the No. 4 seed from 8-6A after winning two of its last thee and getting a Habersham win over Apalachee last week in the season finale. The two wins are the fewest for the Red Elephants since 1999, the last time they did not make the playoffs. Gainesville also will hit the road traveling to Region 5-6A champion Creekside (7-3).

In Class 5A, No. 2 Buford comes in as the Region 8-5A champion after rolling through region play. The Wolves will take on Miller Grove, the No. 4 seed from Region 5-5A.

Buford (8-2) has won 19 straight first round games going back to 1997 when the Wolves fell to Manchester 29-3 in the Class A playoffs that season. The Wolves are paced by Derrian Brown, who leads the team with 1,269 yards rushing. The Buford defense has given up just 13 points to teams from Class 5A on the season. The Wolverines (3-7) are making their third consecutive playoff appearance but are still looking for their first-ever playoff victory.

In Class 4A, Flowery Branch and White County both look to advance after surviving a brutal Region 7-4A season. The Falcons (8-2) finished third and the Warriors (3-7) won a tiebreaker over West Hall and Denmark to grab the No. 4 seed after winning two of their final four games.

Flowery Branch battled a plethora of injuries over the final month of the season but managed to win its final two games to hold off the Warriors, West Hall, and Denmark. The Falcons are without their top two running backs in Jaizen Ellingham (ankle, out for season), Zarian Brawner (undisclosed, out first round), top receiver Jalin Strown (no longer on the roster), and starting defensive end Ethan McKay (knee, out for season). They start with a trip to Region 6-4A No. 2 seed Ridgeland (7-3) near Chattanooga.

Falcons coach Ben Hall said it was a rough final month. 

“It’s been a tough, physical season. Injuries unfortunately are part of the game,” Hall said. “But I can’t say enough about how proud I am of our guys for fighting through this and staying focused and working hard. We’ve had to be a little more vanilla on offense and lean on our offensive line.

“Ridgeland is a better team at home, kind of like Gainesville, and we’re going to have to have some things go our way. But our defense has been consistent all year and except for McKay they’re all still there and in pretty good shape. I think our defense can keep us in most games and we’ll just have to find a way on offense to make some things happen.”

Class 3A has the area’s largest contingent with three teams -- Jefferson, Dawson County, and North Hall. Jefferson finished as the runner-up in Region 8-3A and Dawson County took second in Region 7-3A. North Hall finished third in 7-3A.

The Dragons (8-2) much like Flowery Branch, battled late-season injuries but should be near 100 percent after completing their season two weeks ago. Coach Gene Cathcart said the much-needed rest was most welcome as they get ready to take on Region 5-3A No. 3 seed Westminster at Memorial Stadium.

The Dragons were missing four key starters for most or parts of the second half of the season, including quarterback Colby Clark, who missed the last five games, and offensive lineman J.T. Middleton, who missed the past two games. They also will be playing their first playoff game in the new-and-improved Memorial Stadium.

“First of all, I’m proud of our guys in how they battled just to get into this position. I just hope we’ve weathered the injury storm,” Cathcart said. “Colby, J.T., Jacob Compton, Zac Corbin all really benefited from the two weeks. We have a tough opener but we’re excited to be playing at home and the stadium looks fantastic and hopefully having the home crowd will give us an extra boost.”

Dawson County (9-1) has been dominating all season behind one of the state’s best, and most punishing, ground games. The Tigers will play host to Region 6-3A No. 3 seed Haralson County (8-2). 

Senior quarterback Sevaughn Clark, who moved over from running back for the 2018 season, and senior running back transfer Ahmad Kamara have been nearly unstoppable all season. Kamara leads the Tigers in rushing with 1,064 yards while Clark has added just under 800 yards on the ground and over 700 yards passing in the Tigers retooled spread attack that is seventh in Class 3A in scoring (404, 40.4 ppg).

North Hall (8-2) completed its best regular season since 2013 and is looking for its first playoff win since 2012 when it advanced to the Class 3A semifinals. The Trojans will travel to Region 6-3A No. 2-seed Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe.

The Trojans wing-T offense, paced by senior running back Daniel Jackson, who leads the team in rushing and receiving, and quarterback David Seavey, has put up record numbers this season twice setting single-game scoring records and posting the most points ever in a three-game stretch with 208 points in wins over Fannin County, Lumpkin County, and East Hall. They come in third in Class 3A averaging 43.1 ppg on the season.

But defensively is where the Trojans have made the most improvement allowing just 101 points, the seventh-fewest in Class 3A.

Class 2A will have a pair of playoff teams in Rabun County, the Region 8-2A champion and defending Class 2A state runner-up, and Region 8-2A No. 2 seed Union County.

Union County (9-1) is coming off a tough loss to the Wildcats (9-1) in last week’s regular season finale for the region title. The Panthers, which are third in Class 2A in scoring (425, 42.5 ppg) are led by junior Pierson Allison (2,669 yards, 23 TDs, 4 INT) who was the top passer in Class 2A and sixth in the state in all classifications during the regular season.

Union County will face a brutally tough opening round game against Bremen, the No. 3 seed from Region 5-2A and one of three top 10-ranked teams from that region to make the playoffs. Bremen knocked off Rabun County 13-10 in the season opener. The Panthers, however, are still searching for their first-ever playoff win in program history.

“Our kids want to get that first playoff win. We’ve talked about it. We’re excited about this opportunity and I think being at home will be big for us,” Allison said. “We’ll need to execute a little better on both sides of the ball than we did against Rabun. Bremen is going to be huge challenge for us but we’ll be ready.”

Rabun County (9-1) rolled to its ninth-straight win since the Bremen loss last week and has gotten more potent as the season has gone on behind freshman quarterback Gunner Stockton (2,203 yards, 25 TDs, 5 INT) who was second in passing yards only to Allison above in Class 2A. The Wildcats will take on Region 5-5A No. 4 seed Spencer (3-7) as they get under way in trying to make another run at the state championship game.

The Wildcats feature the top offense in Class 2A (485, 48.5 ppg) but also have a defense that has yielded just 167 points (16.7 ppg) over the past eight games. Spencer sits in the bottom half in Class 2A in scoring (162, 16.2 ppg) and is allowing over 22.6 ppg on the season.

In Class A, Commerce and Riverside Military Academy both advanced from Region 8-A in the Public and Private classifications.

Commerce is no stranger to the playoffs and earned the No. 9 overall seed in the Class A Public bracket and will take on No. 24 seed Seminole County (5-5). Meanwhile, the Eagles (5-5) earned the No. 23 seed in the 24-team Class A Private field and will hit the road to take on No. 10 seed and fellow Region 8-A foe George Walton (8-2).

For Riverside coach Nick Garrett and the Eagles, they are more than excited about having the opportunity to nab the school’s first-ever GHSA playoff win.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of excitement around the school and among alumni who have reached out to us ,” said Garrett, who has guided the Eagles to the playoffs in just his second season. “No matter who we play we know it will be a tough game. But we’ve played some of the top teams already so we feel we can be competitive. Hopefully can get that first win.

“Our goal is to be able to build on this for the future, which is what we talk to the younger kids about every day. The seniors certainly are excited and I think the younger kids are excited about what this could mean for the future for the program.”

For Commerce, the Tigers (8-2) have been dominant with their only two losses coming to Riverside Military Academy and to No. 1-ranked Athens Academy last week.

Area teams in bold

Habersham Central (Region 8, Seed No. 3) at Douglas County (R5, S2)
Gainesville (R8, S4) at Creekside (R5, S1)

Miller Grove (R5, S4) at Buford (R8, S1)

Flowery Branch (R7, S3) at Ridgeland (R6, S2)
White County (R7, S4) at Pickens (R6, S1)

Haralson County (R6, S3) at Dawson County (R7, S2)
North Hall (R7, S3) at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe (R6, S2)
Westminster (R5, S3) at Jefferson (R8, S2)

Spencer (R5, S4) at Rabun County (R8, S1)
Bremen (R5, S3) at Union County (R8, S2)

Seminole County (No. 24) at Commerce (No. 9)

Riverside MIlitary Academy (No. 23) at George Walton Academy (No. 10)

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