In 2020, Region 7-3A was as wide-open as a South Dakota prairie.
Every team suffered at least one loss. Four crucial games were decided by a touchdown or less. The top four teams all beat each other.
Cherokee Bluff came out of nowhere to win its first-ever region title but lost to No. 4 seed White County, who lost to No. 3 Dawson County, who lost No. 2 North Hall, who lost to Bluff. West Hall, which finished fifth, was tied with Bluff at halftime and led Dawson County in the first half.
We learned to expect the unexpected. Expect that again in 2021.
Every Region 7-3A team but Lumpkin County -- the Indians have an off week -- will open its region schedule on Friday, and three teams expecting to challenge for the title will already be behind the proverbial eight-ball come late Friday night. West Hall plays host to North Hall, Cherokee Bluff travels to Gilmer, and White County entertains Dawson County.
And there was a definite theme for the coaches as they got their teams prepared to open the real playoff journey this week.
“It’s always important to open with a win in region play,” North Hall’s David Bishop said. “It not only sets the tone for the region, but it also keeps you in the driver’s seat when it comes to being able to make the playoffs.”
“The winner[s] (definitely) will be set up nicely as we move toward the playoffs,” White County coach Tim Cokely said.
West Hall’s Krofton Montgomery agreed, but said it won’t be the end of the season for any of the teams that falter on Friday.
“It’s (definitely) important to get off to a good start in the region. But one week doesn’t define a season,” Montgomery said.
Cherokee Bluff coach Tommy Jones said they only have eyes for this week.
“My high school coach (Dave Hunter) used to say 'the most important game is ALWAYS the next game.' That has to be the focus and approach every week,” Jones said. “Only time will tell how things shake out in the end.”
The defending region champion Bears (4-0, 0-0 Region 7-3A) have an intriguing opener on the road against Gilmer (2-1, 0-0 Region 7-3A) which is under new management with former St. Pius coach Paul Standard. The Bobcats are riding a two-game win streak but Bluff was the only 7-3A team to go undefeated on the road (3-0) in region play in 2020.
Bluff is the highest scoring team in the state, all classifications (232 points, 58.0 points/game) behind senior running back Jayquan Smith and is only yielding 7.0 ppg on defense with two consecutive shutouts. After a slow start and learning Standard’s new offense, the Bobcats have scored 75 points (37.5 ppg) during their win streak.
“Coach Standard has done an incredible job of getting them going quickly. Their film is impressive,” Jones said. “The one thing that most people understand is that their offensive scheme is so unique and challenging to prepare for. They are extremely efficient and execute very well. We understand that it is going to take a great effort for us to be successful.”
North Hall (2-2, 0-0 Region 7-3A) is coming off an emotional, and thrilling, win over rival Chestatee last week when Luke Brown booted a 42-yard field goal on the final play. However, injuries have ravaged the Trojans forcing Bishop and his staff to shuffle and reshuffle his roster over the first five weeks.
He knows none of that will matter against a Spartans team that is among the area’s most improved. But the Trojans have won five straight region openers.
“Anytime you lose your first region game, you have to play catch up to get back in the chase for a playoff spot and a title,” Bishop said. “We’re getting several (players) back this week and will need to improve our execution ... to just be more competitive. Our overall focus is going to be execution in all phases of the game.”
North Hall’s usually potent wing-T offense has been up-and-down all season. They piled up nearly 400 yards in their season-opener but were held to less than 100 yards the next week in a shutout loss to Stephens County.
Montgomery expected his team to be right in the thick of things in 2021. The Spartans (2-1, 0-0 Region 7-3A) were off to a tremendous start before being routed by Chestatee two weeks ago. He said a quick start to region play would be a welcome change.
West Hall has dropped three straight region openers, missing out on the playoffs each season. Missed opportunities and turnovers killed the Spartans in their 42-7 loss to Chestatee.
“You prepare every week to win that ballgame and it usually comes down to execution and players making plays when their number is called,” Montgomery said. “Little things lead to wins and losses and plays being made.
“Offensively, we’ve got to catch the ball. Drops are killing us, especially wide open in stride balls that are chunk plays. North Hall is a very good team that takes incredible discipline and focus to play with them for 48 minutes.”
In another huge matchup right out of the gate, White County (1-3, 0-0 Region 7-3A) plays host to Dawson County (1-3, 0-0 Region 7-3A). Both teams struggled in non-region play but both also had a week off to work out the kinks.
The issue in 2021 for both has been defense. White County (111 points, 27.7 ppg) is 47th and Dawson County is 48th (28.0 ppg) in defense out of 57 Class 3A teams.
Special teams and turnovers also have been an issue for both in the early going. In the Warriors’ 21-12 loss to Habersham Central two weeks ago, White County outgained the Raiders but a pick-6 and a special teams touchdown turned the tide.
“The game appears to be evenly matched and we have focused on special teams and ball security (the last two weeks),” Cokely said. “When region play begins those areas usually determine many of the games so that is where our focus has been.”
Buckle up, grab some popcorn, and get ready for a six-week show.
SCHEDULE FOR SEPT. 24
Banks County at Haralson County
Buford at Central Gwinnett*
Cherokee Bluff at Gilmer*
Clarke Central at Jackson County*
Dawson County at White County*
East Hall at Cedar Shoals*
Flowery Branch at Jefferson*
Gainesville at Hillgrove
Loganville at Johnson*
Mt. Paran at Commerce
Murphy (NC) at Union County
North Hall at West Hall*
Pickens (SC) at Rabun County
Praise Academy at Lanier Christian
Toombs County at Riverside Military
Towns County at Bethlehem Christian
Winder-Barrow at Habersham Central*
(* -- denotes region game)