The Region 7-3A championship race is not unusual. It's the same book, same storyline with the addition of another chapter.
Let's title it: The Big Three battles again.
This one is, yet again, on top of the Amazon bestseller list but with a different plot.
In the beginning, Cherokee Bluff and North Hall were the favorites to fight for the region title. White County was expected to be in the race as was West Hall. Dawson County was picked fifth.
Just as any good book, the twists, and turns, and ups and downs keep you in suspense, and there's always a surprise or two mixed in along the way.
But it's no surprise, now, that Cherokee Bluff, Dawson County and North Hall are in a three-horse race to determine who takes home the top prize, and it all starts Friday when the Tigers travel to the Bears' home turf in yet another epic battle of two quality football teams. You can listen to the game live on FM 102.9 WDUN. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
"Dawson is obviously playing with a high level of confidence right now," Cherokee Bluff coach Tommy Jones said. "You can tell that things are starting to click, getting better and better every single week. They're solid and are well-coached. Coach [Sid] Maxwell and his staff do an outstanding job. There are no glaring weaknesses at all when you watch them play."
The Tigers started the season 0-3 and were giving up 33.3 points per game while only averaging 14 ppg on offense. It was trying times for a program that lost almost every starting position to graduation, including the transfer of star wide receiver Jaden Gibson (Rabun County), but not unfamiliar. The Tigers started the 2020 season 0-3.
Since those three losses -- Cass, Flowery Branch and South Forsyth -- the Tigers are averaging 46.5 ppg on offense and giving up 14.
Senior quarterback, Zach Holtzclaw, who returned as Class 3A's top passer, said team chemistry has gotten better each week.
"It's every year, you have to get used to different people, and then, I guess, just the chemistry has grown every week and we keep getting better and better," Holtzclaw said."
Senior wideout Bailey Dameron emerged as Holtzclaw's top target, turning in seven 100-plus-game performances. He's hauled in 40 passes for 888 yards and six touchdowns.
"It took a little bit, but he's our big stud. We just find different ways to get him the ball," Holtzclaw said about Dameron. "He's just an athlete, great receiver, runs great routes. He just does everything right."
If the Tigers are going to move the football against Class 3A's second-ranked defense, and top-rated offense, they'll have to do everything right.
"They have a great defense, very few people have scored on them," Maxwell said. "Their offense is strong in putting points up, and their defense gets the ball right back to them," Maxwell said. "So we're going to have to be a balanced offense, not give up the big play on defense and gang tackle."
Cherokee Bluff, on the other hand, has been dominant this season, giving up an astonishing seven points per game while averaging 52.1 ppg on offense.
Senior running back Jayquan Smith is averages 11 yards per carry (81-953 yards, 166 last week in a win over Lumpkin County). He had more than 300 yards rushing and four touchdowns in the Bears' comeback, 28-27, win against the Tigers last season.
Maxwell says Smith runs the ball stronger this year.
"We had a hard time controlling him last year. He was a game-changer for them. They broke off two long runs on us that we just didn't' make the plays. We've got to be up to the challenge. We've got to slow him down to have an opportunity."
While Smith is the featured back in an offense that relies on its rushing game (1881 rushing yards, 771 passing yards), the Bears have 17 players that have complied yards out of the backfield. Hunter (27-205), Brayden Nance (19-134), Carroll (31-164) and Max Eubanks (7-120) have been the main contributors in the run game. Senior quarterback Sebastion Irons has been efficient as well, completing 60 percent of his passes for 627 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The output can be credited to the big play from the guys upfront --- Keller Atkinson, Mateo Guevara, Parker Waldrop, Pedro Artega, Jacob Benjamin and tight end Ryan Graves, opening lanes in the trenches and giving Irons time to throw.
"Those guys do an excellent job," Jones said. "It all starts upfront with us. Our guys have done an excellent job upfront. Those guys do a super job of coming off the football and staying on blocks."
However this storyline goes Friday night, the ending will leave one team undefeated and still in the hunt for the Region 7-3A title. Will it be the defending champ Bears or will Dawson County pull the major upset?
That part of the story is left up to Jones, Maxwell and the players.
"It's exciting for our community," Jones said. "Part of the reason that you work hard year-round when you play this game is to put yourself in a position to play a big-time manful game late in the season.
Holtzclaw will write some of this chapter, his last against the Bears.
"It's a big game, especially for us seniors," Holtzclaw said. "It's our last year, our last ride. It's a region championship, but you never know. We're going to play it like it's our last."
Friday Game Night's Caleb Hutchins contributed to this story.