Overall, eight of the 14 teams in Northeast Georgia to make the playoffs advanced to the second round over the weekend.
Here are five things we learned from the first round of the postseason:
1. Cherokee Bluff's second half surge becoming signature
Late in the first half, Region 7-3A champion Cherokee Bluff was trailing 4th-seeded LaFayette 7-0. Most young programs in the same situation would've had sweaty palms and the game would have gone down to the final minutes. Instead, the Bears were right at home. They tied the game late in the first half on a Jayquan Smith touchdown and proceeded to rout the Ramblers 35-7 for the program's first-ever playoff win. This was not the first time a Cherokee Bluff (10-1) game followed this script this year. Earlier games against Gilmer, West Hall and North Hall all saw the Bears either tied or trailing early in the third quarter, only to see them go on to win by double-digit margins. Cherokee Bluff is a team built around its defense and ground game, and they have used that to wear down opponents in the second half to the point that it's starting to become their calling card. They'll want to make sure that they don't give up too much in the first half this Friday, however, as they get set to host Carver, Atlanta in the first round.
2. The Brickyard's playoff magic is real
Sometimes a stadium builds a reputation that starts to become an aura. That has certainly become the case with Lynn Cottrell Stadium at North Hall. The Brickyard has always been one of the better home field advantages in North Georgia since the Trojans program began to rise at the start of the 2000's. It's now turning into a house of horrors for playoff opponents who make their way to Murrayville. North Hall has now won 12 consecutive playoff games at The Brickyard, having not lost a home postseason game since 2004, moving their overall playoff home record to 14-2. It's one of the 20 longest such streaks in Georgia high school football history and it hasn't always come easy. Just take Friday night for example, where despite jumping out to an early 21-0 lead, the Trojans (7-4) needed some key 4th quarter drives and a stop in the final minutes to secure a 36-28 first round win over North Murray. Another home game is not guaranteed as they will need to win on the road at Greater Atlanta Christian this week to keep their season alive, but The Brickyard did its part for North Hall's playoff run, as it seemingly always does.
3. Flowery Branch rolling, ready for Marist showdown
You always want to be playing your best ball of the year when the playoffs come around. Flowery Branch appears to be doing just that. The Falcons cruised through their first round matchup with Luella Saturday night 40-6, marking their largest margin of victory in a playoff game in program history. It was their sixth consecutive win and each of their last four wins have come by a minimum of 33 points. The timing couldn't be better as they will face perhaps their stiffest challenge of the season Friday night when they travel to top-ranked Marist, a team they have plenty of familiarity with, having spent the previous two seasons sharing Region 7-4A with the War Eagles. The Falcons (9-2) have tangled with top-flight opposition already this year. They hosted #2 Jefferson earlier in the year and four of their ten regular season opponents are still alive in the state playoffs, with eight of their eleven opponents so far making the postseason. A balanced offense led by quarterback David Renard and running back Jaizen Ellingham have paced the team all year and a defense that took some lumps early on seems to have matured. They'll need every bit of that talent and experience Friday night.
4. Gainesville shows 7A merit in heartbreaking loss
Gainesville's first season in Class 7A came to an end Friday night in a 21-14 loss at Archer. It was a season that unfortunately left a number of 'what-ifs' on the table, as all five of the Red Elephants' (6-5) losses came by seven points or fewer. Friday night was one of the most gut-wrenching of the bunch as they came back to tie the game at 14 in the final minutes, only to watch the Tigers come right back down the field for the game-winning touchdown. While it didn't the way Gainesville players, coaches or fans wanted, the season will stand as proof of concept that the program is ready to compete in the state's highest classification. It's easy to forget that Gainesville was perhaps just two plays away from winning the Region 6-7A title, which could've made for a very different first round result, and close losses to perennial 7A powers Hillgrove and Archer show that the Red Elephants are not intimidated by the state's elite. Moral victories are never preferred, but in small doses they can be taken to a team's benefit. This may be one of those instances, as Heath Webb continues to build the Gainesville program, improving the team's win total over each of his first three seasons. More improvement could mean a big 2021 for Big Red.
5. Area results show importance of home field advantage in postseason
Every year, we inevitably end up talking about a number of games around the area that could dictate who gets to play at home in the first round of the playoffs. Friday night was a clear demonstration that such games matter in a major way. There were 13 games involving Northeast Georgia teams this past weekend, and the home team went 12-1 in those matchups, with Dawson County's win at Adairsville being the lone road win. There were some games that were certainly within reach for the road seeds. Gainesville, Union County and North Murray (playing at North Hall) all played within one score of the home team. LaFayette lead Cherokee Bluff late in the second quarter and White County was in a back-and-forth battle in the third quarter with Rockmart but both ultimately fell by multiple touchdowns. Across the state, home teams went 103-21 (83%) in the first round. That percentage will likely tighten up in the later rounds and competition becomes fiercer, but at least in the first round, home field advantage has proven to be massively important.