Saturday June 19th, 2021 9:04PM

5 Things: What we learned from the first round of the high school football playoffs

By Caleb Hutchins Reporter

Playoff football never fails to produce memorable moments. The first round of the postseason for northeast Georgia teams had historic wins, dominant performances and some unexpected dogfights.

Here are five things we learned from the first round of the high school football playoffs:

1. No region championship game hangover for Buford

Buford found itself in an unfamiliar situation Friday night, in more ways than one. For starters, the Wolves entered the first round of the state playoffs not as the #1 seed, the first time they've done so since 2012. They also entered coming off a loss in the regular season finale for the first time in nearly 20 years (a 2000 loss to Commerce). The question was, would Buford's Week 12 region championship game loss at Clarke Central lead to a hangover that would linger into their first round matchup with Decatur? The answer: a resounding 'no'. The Wolves jumped out to a blistering 29-0 first quarter lead on their way to a 43-6 victory. The win not only put the Wolves (10-1, 4-1 Region 8-5A) into the second round in the Class 5A bracket, where they'll now travel to Ware County this Friday, but it also let Buford get their feet back under them as they head into the meat of another postseason run. Can they carry that momentum with them to Waycross where a tough Ware County team now awaits? We will soon find out.

2. Dawson County defense rebounds, makes opening-round statement

Dawson County's defense did not have a strong end to the regular season, allowing 40 points to North Hall in a game that made them the #3 seed in Region 7-3A headed into the playoffs. That same defense made perhaps the loudest statement in northeast Georgia in the first round Friday night. The Tigers shut down Westminster, allowing their offense to grind out a 27-3 win in Atlanta. It was the fewest points Dawson County (8-3, 4-2 Region 7-3A) has ever allowed in a state playoff game and the fewest points they've allowed in any game since a Week 6 shutout of Lumpkin County. It may be unfair to expect such a dominant defensive performance out of the Tigers this coming week, but if the unit can come close to replicating their first-round performance, Dawson County may have a deep playoff run in front of them. A strong test will come in a round two visit to Savannah against Jenkins.

3. Jefferson, Commerce shrug off early struggles, cruise to wins

Jefferson and Commerce both entered the state playoffs on hot streaks. The Dragons had won their final eight games of the regular season and done so by an average margin of 37.5 points per game on their way to the Region 8-3A championship. The Tigers shrugged off a Week 9 loss to division foe Hebron Christian by winning their last three, including a big home victory over George Walton Academy. Both teams were expected to roll through their first round matchups, and they ultimately did just that. There were some speed bumps, as Sonoraville and Trion both gave their hosts an early battle. A Sonoraville touchdown cut Jefferson's lead to 20-17 in the third quarter Friday night, while Commerce held a slim 9-6 halftime lead over the Bulldogs. Jefferson responded to the Phoenix's touchdown by scoring 29 unanswered points to cruise to a 49-17 win. Commerce shutout Trion in the second half and ended with a comfortable 23-6 victory. There are few easy wins this time of year, and Jefferson (9-1, 7-0 Region 8-3A) and Commerce (9-2, 3-1 Region 8-A North) got early tastes of that in round number one. Those early tests could prove useful, as both schools once again expect to make deep postseason runs.

4. North Hall once again fights through injuries

North Hall has had a successful 2019 season that is still very much alive after a 24-21 first round win over Lovett Friday night. What's most impressive about the campaign is the fact that the Trojans (9-2, 5-1 Region 7-3A) have spent almost no time at full health. A slew of injuries at various key positions caused North Hall some early-season struggles that they were eventually able to fight through on their way to a second-place region finish in 7-3A. Against Dawson County, the team appeared to be back to 100 percent, but then the injury bug bit again and bit hard, with senior star running back J.T. Fair suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Both Fair and two-way junior standout Dalton Battle were unavailable for the first-round matchup with Lovett, but North Hall once again fought through the injuries. This time, it was running back Clark Howell coming to the rescue, stepping in for Fair to the tune of 33 carries for 187 yards and three touchdowns. How deep North Hall's resilience will be able to take them in the playoffs is yet to be seen, but every member of the Trojans' team deserves credit for putting together another strong season that had every reason to be defined by frustration.

5. Union County uses defense, not offense to capture first ever playoff win

Union County had not won a state playoff game in it's 63-year history before Friday night, but one could sense that that ceiling was close to coming off. The Panthers have become one of North Georgia's most consistent programs over the past eight years under head coach Brian Allison, winning at least 6 games each year since 2012 and making the playoffs in seven of those seasons including 2019. That stretch had largely been defined by offense, as a couple of star quarterbacks had produced some high-flying Panthers offenses and this year was no different, with the team averaging more than 40 points per game through the regular season. With that in mind, you would expect the program's first ever playoff win to come in high-scoring fashion. You would be wrong. It was the Union County defense that delivered that elusive first postseason victory, holding South Atlanta to just one score in each half with the Panthers' offense doing just enough to compliment that performance for a 19-15 win in Blairsville Friday night. It was especially vindicating for a defensive unit that was much-maligned early in the year after allowing 57 points to Putnam County in Week 6. How far Union County (10-1, 6-1 Region 8-2A) can go in the Class 2A bracket remains to be seen, but the monkey is officially off the back of Brian Allison's program, and that was all that mattered Friday night.

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