Friday March 1st, 2024 4:45AM

Blog: Fate intervenes in 'what could have been' for NEGa teams

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

It was as stunning a 45 minutes as we've ever seen in these parts in the Georgia High School Association football playoffs.

Six northeast Georgia area teams -- Buford, Gainesville, Jefferson, Lumpkin County, Commerce, and Rabun County -- all were looking to advance to the semifinals across five different classifications Friday night. It would have made for one of the busiest Final Four weeks the area has ever seen, if not THE busiest ever.

In 2012, Buford, Gainesville, and Jefferson all advanced to the championship game and came away with titles. Not since then has our area had more than two teams in any given season get to the semifinals at the same time.

Jefferson in Class 5A was on its way to a 35-12 rout of Harris County, while Rabun County trailed Brooks County by two scores in Class A Division 1 in what would become a 39-13 loss. 

Buford, Gainesville, and Commerce all were either leading or tied, while Lumpkin County was within one play of evening up their matchup late in the fourth quarter.

Buford had the ball with a chance to increase its 14-13 lead against Grayson in Class 7A. Gainesville led Woodward Academy, 17-14, with under three minutes to go in Class 6A. Lumpkin County had fought back from a 21-6 deficit to pull within 28-21 against Savannah Christian in Class 3A and had the ball trying to even the score. Commerce was tied with Bryan County, 16-16, with two minutes left in Class A Division 1.

That's where things sat as I went down to the field at the Buford-Grayson game with the Wolves trying to protect a slim 1-point lead. By the time I returned to the press box, the dreams of a semifinal weekend like no other had been crushed among the small pellets in the turf field at Grayson.

Fate can be cruel.

The Wolves were forced to punt and then later gave up a 3rd-and-22 and a 4th-and-8 to the Rams on consecutive plays, who two plays later cashed in the game-winning score. To add insult to injury, Grayson sacked Dylan Raiola on Buford's final two offensive plays to seal the win.

Gainesville gave up a 17-yard touchdown run with 2:31 left, and then the War Eagles picked off a Gainesville pass to complete the upset. The Red Elephants were looking for their first back-to-back Final 4s since Deshaun Watson led them to three straight from 2011-13.

Lumpkin County had been making history with every win. The Indians had never won a playoff game until this season and were looking for their first-ever semifinal appearance. But they fell behind 21-6 early before rallying to within 28-21 early in the fourth quarter. But after forcing a turnover and having the ball with a chance to tie the game, they were stopped on fourth down, and the Raiders would score twice down the stretch to pull away for a 42-21 win.

But Commerce's may be the toughest of them all. The Tigers were locked in a back-and-forth duel with Bryan County as each had scored a pair of touchdowns and converted 2-point conversions to sit tied at 16 with 2:31 left. But Bryan County was able to drain the clock and punch in a touchdown with just 22 seconds left to end the Tigers' bid for their first Final 4 since 2015.

We were staring at a possible statement season for football in our area. Instead, only the Dragons are left to carry the mantle for what could have been for northeast Georgia.

Even with the gut-wrenching finish on Friday, the 2023 campaign has been one of the most successful in recent memory. And it's not over yet, as Jefferson is now just one win from a possible state championship game appearance, their second since 2020.

Seven teams advanced to the second round and six to the Elite 8, a significant increase to the just two teams that made it out of the second round in 2022. Only one -- Gainesville -- advanced beyond the Elite 8 last season.

There figure to be some significant changes for several teams in 2024 due to graduation, but thanks to a resurgent 2023 campaign, things look much brighter for the bulk of northeast Georgia football in the foreseeable future.

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