Friday December 8th, 2023 1:37AM

ICYMI: 2nd round previews — 7 area teams look to advance to Elite 8 round

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

Just seven northeast Georgia area teams made it out of the first round of the playoffs in the GHSA, GIAA, and GAPPS leagues. But it’s a potent field that is left as the Sweet 16 kicks off on Friday around the state.

Four of the seven will be at home, while the other two of the three teams that hit the road are road favorites. 

Gainesville  Jefferson, Lumpkin County, and Commerce will be at home, while Buford, Union County, and Rabun County will all take road trips.

Four of the matchups are first-ever meetings between the teams, while Lumpkin County will try to exorcise another playoff demon, and Rabun County has a rematch from the regular season.

Gainesville, which takes on Blessed Trinity in Class 6A at City Park, is looking for back-to-back trips to the quarterfinals since 2013-14. It’s the first-ever meeting between the two long-time programs.

Jefferson will entertain Hiram in a first-ever meeting at Memorial Stadium, with the Dragons looking for their first Elite 8 berth since making the Class 4A state title game in 2020.

Lumpkin County is also at home and has a possible program-defining rematch with Oconee County, a team that humbled them at The Burial Grounds in last year’s first round. The Indians won their first-ever playoff game last week and can make more history with their first-ever trip to the quarterfinals.

Commerce also is at home and takes on Dade County at Tiger Stadium as they look for their first quarterfinals trip since 2020 as well.

Buford, meanwhile, is a road favorite at Norcross in a Class 7A showdown between Gwinnett County programs that have not met since 1977.

Union County, which is into the second round for a second straight season, has a huge road test at Rockmart in another first-ever matchup in Class 2A.

Also in Class A D1, Rabun County will be looking for its ninth straight Elite 8 traveling to Whitefield Academy, a team the Wildcats beat during the regular season. The Wildcats are favored on the road.

For a look at all of the weekend's contests involving area teams, scroll down. And be sure to check back with AccessWDUN's Friday Game Night throughout the night for score updates, game stories and video highlights. You can also check for scores and highlights on our Twitter feed: @FridayGameNight

(Games listed in alphabetical order of visiting team)

Records: Wolves (10-1, No. 2 seed Region 8-7A); Blue Devils (9-2, No. 1 seed Region 7-7A)
Last week: Buford beat Wheeler, 50-0; Norcross beat Denmark, 34-10
Where: Norcross Stadium, Norcross
Radio: WDUN AM 550
Time: 7:30 p.m.
The Statisticals: Buford leads series 6-2. The two teams have not played since 1977, a 27-7 Wolves win at home. Norcross is into the Sweet 16 for a 6th straight season. Buford is in the 2nd round for the 23rd consecutive season. The Wolves had their string of 22 straight Sweet 16 wins snapped last season by Walton. Norcross has lost 2 straight and 4 of its last 5 2nd round games (2020 semifinals). The Blue Devils are 10th in 7A in offense. Buford leads 7A in defense, allowing just 6.27 ppg (69 points). Buford has outscored its last four opponents 234-0. Buford QB Dylan Raiola has found his groove over the last half of the season. He now has 2,359 yards passing with 30 TD and no INTs. He is averaging 10.77 yards/attempt and 17.09 yards/completion. K.J. Bolden is showing how dangerous of a receiver he is, hauling in career-highs in catches (25), yards (588), and TDs (11).
What to watch for: The Norcross offense vs. the Buford defense. The Blue Devils will be the first top-10 offense the Wolves have faced since Mill Creek. Norcross is sparked by Sr. QB A.J. Watkins, who leads the team in passing (880 yards) and rushing (1,056 yards, 16 TD) and has an interesting streak going, having at least one TD passing, rushing and receiving in each of the past two games. They have scored 27 or more in 8 straight games. 


Records: Titans (9-2, No. 2 seed Region 7-6A); Red Elephants (11-0, No. 1 seed Region 8-6A)
Last week: Blessed Trinity beat Creekview, 24-10; Gainesville beat South Paulding, 46-27
Where: City Park Stadium, Gainesville
Radio: 94.5 FM The Lake
Time: 7:30 p.m.
The Statisticals: First-ever meeting between the two schools. The Titans are back in the 2nd round after having their 9-year run of 1st round wins snapped in 2022. GHS is into the 2nd for a second consecutive season, the first back-to-back Sweet 16s since the 2014-15 seasons. This could be a fierce defensive battle as both teams are in the top 6 in 6A. Big Red is 6th in defense, giving up just 11.8 ppg (130 points), while the Titans are 17th (324 points, 29.45ppg) in offense in 6A. What to watch for: The Gainesville offense vs. the Titans defense. The Titans are 5th in defense, allowing just 125 points (11.36 ppg), while GHS is 7th in offense (336, 40.5 ppg) led by Gavin Hall, who has 1,490 yards and 21 TD on the season. Baxter Wright has thrown for 1,906 yards and 22 TD this season, with Sky Niblett being his favorite target (29 rec., 446 yards, 9 TD). The Red Elephants have 5 receivers with 19 or more catches. BT has 54 TFL, including 24 sacks, and has forced 17 turnovers (10 fumbles, 7 INT) on the season.


Records: Hornets (9-2, No. 2 seed Region 7-5A); Dragons (11-0, No. 1 Region 8-5A)
Last week: Hiram beat Cambridge, 31-24; Jefferson beat Jackson-Atlanta, 48-14
Where: Memorial Stadium, Jefferson
Radio: WDUN 102.9 FM
Time: 7:30 p.m.
The Statisticals: First-ever meeting between the two schools. The Hornets are in the 2nd round for the first time since 2019. However, since opening in 2000, they have never advanced to a quarterfinal round in their history. Hamilton has rushed for 1,057 yards this season. Hiram is just 19th in 5A in defense (243, 22.09 ppg), while the Dragons are 5th in offense (438, 39.82 ppg). Dragons’ Jr. QB Gavin Markey had the best game of his career last week with 206 yards and 4 TDs passing. With RB Sammy Brown leading one of the best rushing attacks in 5A (1,542 yards, 24 TD), Markey and the passing game’s emergence could make Jefferson nearly unstoppable.
What to watch for: The Hornets offense vs. the Jefferson defense. Hiram will be the best offense Jefferson has faced this season. The Hornets are 3rd in 5A (452, 41.09 ppg) behind a bruising rushing attack that averages almost 300 yards/game. They have 3 players -- Kaden Hamilton (1,057), Da'Shaun Williams (703) and Kendarious Brown (604) -- with 600 or more yards and 31 combined rushing TDs on the season. The last primarily rushing team the Dragons faced, Eastside, was held to just 103 yards for the game.


Records: Warriors (5-6, No. 2 seed Region 8-3A); Indians (11-0, No. 1 seed Region 7-3A)
Last week: Oconee County beat Douglass, 28-14; Lumpkin County beat Gordon Lee, 52-6
Where: The Burial Grounds, Dahlonega
Time: 7:30 p.m.
The Statisticals: Oconee County leads series 2-1. The Warriors won 49-21 in 2022 in the 1st round of the playoffs. Last year’s game was not as close as the score indicated, as Oconee County led 49-0 at halftime. But both teams are vastly different this season. Oconee graduated the bulk of a team that made the Final 4. The Indians have used that rough loss as motivation this season. And things have flipped for both teams. Lumpkin is near the top of every statistical category in Class 3A, while the Warriors are in the bottom half and have been outscored 267-261 on the season. But the Warriors have won 4 of their last 6 after a 1-4 start to the season. Lumpkin is 8th in defense (173, 15.73 ppg), while the Warriors are just 26th on offense (261, 23.73 ppg).
What to watch for: The Indians offense vs. the Oconee County defense. Lumpkin is 2nd in offense behind the classification’s top rusher, Mason Sullens (1,849 yards, 10 100-yard games, 29 TD). As a team, they are averaging over 350 yards/game. They have scored 30 or more in every game this season. Oconee, meanwhile, is 30th in defense (267, 24.27 ppg) out of 50 3A teams. But after giving up 174 points (34.8 ppg) over their first 5 games, the Warriors have surrendered just 93 points (15.5 ppg) over their past 6 games.


Records: Panthers (8-3, No. 2 seed Region 8-2A); Yellow Jackets (9-2, No. 1 seed Region 7-2A)
Last week: Union County beat ELCA, 24-17; Rockmart beat Washington, 28-0
Where: The Rock, Rockmart
Time: 7:30 p.m.
The Statisticals: First-ever meeting between the two teams. Rockmart has won 8 straight. They made the quarterfinals in 2022. The Panthers are into the 2nd round for a second consecutive season and third time since 2019. However, they have never won two playoff games in one postseason. The Yellow Jackets have made it out of the 2nd round just twice since 1988, including last year when they advanced to the quarterfinals. Both teams bring high-scoring offenses into this one. The Panthers are 8th in Class 2A (408, 37.09 ppg) behind the classification’s top passer in Caiden Tanner (2,833 yards, 70%, 26 TD, 9 INT). The Jackets are 9th in scoring (402, 36.91 ppg). Rockmart is 6th in defense, allowing just 11.0 ppg on the season.
What to watch for: The Union County defense vs. the Jackets offense. Rockmart features a balanced attack (206 yards/game rushing, 158 yards/game passing) with 4 players rushing for 200 yards or more on the season. They have 2 receivers with 540 yards or more. The Panthers’ front is better than the stats indicated. They have 57 TFL, including 11 sacks, 26 QB hurries, 16 passes defended, and have forced 12 turnovers. Last, the Union defense recorded a safety, picked off two passes, and had 11 TFLs, including 2 sacks.

CLASS A Division 1

Records: Wolverines (6-5, No. 2 seed Region 7-A D1); Tigers (10-1, No. 1 seed Region 8-A D1)
Last week: Dade County beat Mount Pisgah, 49-7; Commerce beat Jasper County, 58-19
Where: Tiger Stadium, Commerce
Radio: WJJC 95.1 FM/1270 AM
Time: 7:30 p.m.
The Statisticals: First-ever meeting between the two teams. This could be one of the better matchups in Class D1 in the 2nd round. The Tigers are trying to get to their first quarterfinals since 2020 and the first with coach Mar Hollars. The Wolverines are in the 2nd round for the first time since 2010 and just the third time ever. They have never advanced to the Elite 8. Both teams are in the top 14 in offense and defense and were dominating in the opening round. Dade County has won five straight, outscoring the opposition 187-43. Commerce is working on an 8-game win streak, its longest since 2020. The Tigers have surrendered just 102 points (12.75 ppg) during the win streak. Commerce RBs Jaiden Daniels (1,660 yards) and Tysean Wiggins (1,308 yards) lead one of the state’s best rushing attacks for a unit that averages just under 300 yards/game on the ground. Dade County has given up just 43 points (8.6 ppg) during its win streak.
What to watch for: The Commerce defense vs. the Wolverines offense. Dade County has scored 21 or more in 7 straight games and is averaging 37.4 ppg during its win streak. Dade County RB Landon Williams has rushed for 1,341 on the season. The Tigers are yielding just 15.0 ppg and have given up more than 21 just once this season.

Records: Wildcats (8-3, No. 3 seed Region 8-A D1); WolfPack (6-5, No. 1 seed Region 6-A D1)
Last week: Rabun County beat Social Circle, 49-14; Whitefield Academy beat Darlington, 28-14
Where: Mableton, WolfPack Stadium
Time: 7:30 p.m.
The Statisticals: Rabun County leads series 2-0. The Wildcats beat the WolfPack, 38-7, in Mableton back in Week 6. All 3 meetings have been since 2022. Whitefield has won 4 straight and 5 of its last 6 since the loss to the Wildcats. Despite what at times has seemed like some offensive troubles, the Wildcats are 8th in Class D1 in scoring (367, 33.36 ppg) and have scored 35 or more 8 times this season. Whitefield is 17th in defense, allowing 22.82 ppg. But they have a solid front-7 that has 64 TFL, including 22 1/2 sacks, and as a unit, has forced 30 turnovers on the season (15 INT, 15 fumbles).
What to watch for: The Rabun County defense vs. the WolfPack offense.  Rabun is 9th in defense in Class A D1, giving up 17.73 ppg. In the previous two meetings, the WolfPack has scored just 21 points (10.5 ppg). Whitefield is averaging just 200 yards/game of offense. However, after scoring just 50 points (10-.0 ppg) during a 1-4 start, the WolfPack is averaging 41.5 ppg (166 points) during a current 4-game win streak.

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