One thing was always obvious heading into this game — the Hornets are loaded with all-state, D-I talent. But talent alone doesn't guarantee success on the field. However, the Hornets executed their game plan in Savannah on both sides of the ball and when superior talent combines with superior execution, the other team doesn't have a chance. Thus, the Hornets won 31-17.
Before the tournament began, I said the winner of the Hapeville Charter-Benedictine game would win the state championship. I still believe that's the case. The Hornets are locked in and have one of the best defenses in the state, regardless of classification. The offense does a lot more than just hold its end up and is an equal force for the opposition.
While the Hornets weren't a surprise, one team I will admit caught me off guard is the Rabun County Wildcats. I didn't think they'd win, but that's not what's shocking to me. It's the fact that they bulldozed through No. 3 Screven County the same way they have all of their opponents this season by hanging up a crooked score, winning 56-14. And that was against one of the state's best defenses.
I was falsely under the impression that the Wildcats were victims of being a highly competitive team but without equal competition to match in 8-AA, which produced just one other team with a winning record — Elbert County (9-3), which they beat 35-7. Heading into the postseason, they had played just three teams that finished above .500, with Mount Pisgah Christian (8-3) and White County (7-4) being the other two.
While it's true that they are victims of lack of competition, they proved on Friday they can rise to a challenge when faced with one.
Wildcats quarterback Bailey Fisher, who is on the AJC's Player of the Year watch list, continues to put up video game-like numbers, scoring 7 more touchdowns against the Gamecocks. And with the high-powered offense that's become the staple of Lee Shaw-coached teams, it's easy to overlook how dominant the Wildcats' defense has been. Playoff opponents have scored 6, 2 and 14 points against them, in that order. They haven't given up more than 14 points since they beat White County 49-26 in their third game of the season.
With Rabun County maintaining its regular-season dominance against playoff opponents this deep into the tournament, I don't know what to make of their semifinals matchup against the Brooks County Trojans.
The Trojans are the one team I was right on making it this far. And the way they won — a 31-0 shutout on the road against an athletic, high-powered Callaway team averaging 37 points coming in — makes it perhaps even more impressive than Hapeville Charter's victory.
Defensive dominance is nothing new for Brooks County. This was the Trojans' fifth shutout of the season. They've only given up more than two scores four times this season. Offensively, the Trojans have scored 31 or more points in eight of their last nine games and are averaging 35 points in the playoffs.
Finally, there's the Heard County Braves. I should have known better than to pick against a team led by one of the most talented players in the state, regardless of classification. Quarterback Emory Jones, a five-star recruit and Ohio State commitment, played such a vital role for the Braves on both sides of the ball in their 28-14 win over Thomasville. He accounted for three touchdowns on offense and sealed the game with a late interception, nearly returning it to the house for a fourth score.
Like the Hornets, the Braves' only loss is to an Alabama school, meaning they're undefeated against Peach State teams. They're also on a 10-game win streak. While their defense hasn't put up dominant numbers like the other three remaining finalists, the unit compliments Jones and the offense and functions as part of a complete team.
I've said this previously, but this truly was the hardest bracket to predict in the years since I've been doing this, regardless of sport. In most cases, I at least have the majority of teams pegged when it comes to reaching the quarters, semis and finals. But this year's field was so deep with talented, complete teams it really was impossible to see which way these games would go, given the available data and lack of comparables.
I say all of this not as an excuse for my lack of expertise or ability to see into the future, but as a nod to how strong AA truly is. I'll argue with anyone that AA is the deepest classification in the state.
And with that, I'll lay to rest my predictions bracket until basketball season. It was a good run, but it sure crashed hard.
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