2018 Season Wrap: AAA football reputation continues to grow

The Class AAA high school football season ended with a 22-yard pass to the nation’s top receiver with four seconds left in regulation. That lifted Cedar Grove past Peach County at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday. The 14-13 victory marked the second title for Cedar Grove, a school that’s been playing football since 1972.

The Ellenwood powerhouse might not have played the cleanest game against Peach County in the championship. It struggled on offense and was sloppy, especially in the final minute. On the last series alone, what could’ve been a simple waltz into the end zone turned into a must-have situation following three false-start penalties which backed the Saints up before Jadon Haselwood’s touchdown reception and the game-winning extra-point.

According to the entire Saints family, which was reduced to, for lack of better words, a sloppy mess following the victory, the championship run was dedicated to a teammate who was killed three days after graduation last year.

“It means more,” said Haselwood, who wore No. 11 instead of his regular No. 2, as a tribute to his fallen teammate. “I think everybody knows that one of my ...” he said before correcting himself ... “One of our teammates passed away, and I wore his jersey number today. I feel like he is looking down and seeing us win it.”

Trevon Richardson, a 2017 graduate from Cedar Grove, was gunned down outside of his apartment just days after graduation this past May. His death rocked the team as it prepared to take on the caliber of schedule that few Class AAA programs would fathom to take. Richardson’s mother, Nicole, worked as a registrar at the school, and her son was a good athlete on the football, basketball and track teams. He was planning to play football at Valdosta State.

“It means a lot,” said Cedar Grove head coach Jimmy Smith on the emotions of this title, compared to the Saints’ 2016 championship. “Jadon had on No. 11 for a reason, man. We played this game in dedication to Trevon Richardson. His mom is here. We dedicated this to No. 11, and it worked out.”

For Peach County, the 2018 season brought the second consecutive disappointment in a title game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. We all remember the controversy surrounding last year’s final, when Calhoun won 10-6. Peach County contended that a touchdown was taken away from receiver Noah Whittington in the final three minutes and spent the ensuing weeks appealing to the GHSA to replay the final minutes.

In 2018, Peach County made (if you are into second-guessing) several mistakes in the final minutes. The first? Kicking a field goal to take a 13-7 lead, which forced Peach to kick off to Cedar Grove, instead of going for it on fourth down. The results of the gamble then would’ve been: 1) turning the ball over on downs and forcing Cedar Grove to drive the entire field, something they had struggled to do all game, or 2) Getting a first-and-goal with a chance to extend the 10-7 lead. Either way, time would’ve been a key factor.

Then Peach kicked to Haselwood instead of trying to kick it away from him, something that head coach Chad Campbell was clearly frustrated with following Haselwood’s long return that allowed the Saints into Peach County territory. On tape, Campbell was seen questioning his kicker’s execution as the player approached the sidelines.

On the game-winning play, Peach failed to double team Haselwood and stuff the box, which could have forced Cedar Grove quarterback Kendall Boney to throw a touch, over-the-shoulder, fade pass to the corner of the end zone. Instead, Haselwood streaked across the center off the field and made a much easier catch. Of course, that's all arm-chair speculation.

In the end, the two top programs put forth a performance that added to Class AAA's growing reputation -- that it has some of the top athletes and top programs in the state, regardless of class.

Other things we learned this year:

-- Monroe Area’s dual-threat quarterback was really, really good. Chandler Byron finished his senior season passing for 18 touchdowns and 1,332 yards. He rushed for 2,795 yards and 37 touchdowns on 268 carries. The Purple Hurricanes lost to Pierce County in the quarterfinals.

-- Pierce County’s resurgence was fun to watch. OK, so resurgence might be a stronger word than what happened. But the Bears advancing to the semifinals for the first time in school history was significant in coach Jason Strickland’s second season. And the good news for the Bears (as opposed to bad news which tend to follow some Bears around ... get it? ... the movie?), quarterback Jermaine Brewton is a sophomore. He finished 121-of-184 passing for 1,914 yards and 21 touchdowns. But, according to MaxPreps, the top receivers were seniors, with one sophomore listed.

-- Benedictine and Jefferson got a cool reception while entering AAA. The Cadets, moving up from AA, finished 11-2 and advanced to the quarterfinals, losing to Cedar Grove after moving past Tattnall County and Westside-Macon. Jefferson, in from AAAA, went 8-3 in the regular season and lost to Westminster in the first round.

-- And finally, is there ever going to be parity in Class AAA? During the past few seasons we’ve learned that a handful of teams appear ready to dominate, year-in and year-out. In 2015-16, before reclassification, Westminster defeated Blessed Trinity to take the title. The Wildcats appeared in the quarterfinals this year. In 2016-17, Cedar Grove beat Greater Atlanta Christian in the Georgia Dome to win the championship. This year, the Saints won their second title. Last year, GAC lost to Peach County in the semifinals. This year, GAC lost to Westminster, a quarterfinalist, in the second round. Calhoun has been in Class AAA since 2014, and it has won two titles (2014, 2017) and been in the semifinals twice, quarterfinals once.

Cedar Grove, Peach County, Calhoun, Westminster, GAC. Buckle up, AAA. The top of the league is reloading for 2019.

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