Class AAAA: What to watch for in each region

The storylines in Class AAAA have evolved considerably over the last couple of seasons. Back in 2017, the attention largely surrounded Cartersville’s bid for a third-straight state title from the season opener up until a stunning 21-17 victory in the second round by eventual champion Blessed Trinity flipped the script. This past season, Blessed Trinity opened the year ranked No. 1 and handled business by cruising to a perfect 15-0 record and successful title defense. Graduating the most accomplished group in the history of the program is certainly an obstacle that the Blessed Trinity will have to overcome in 2019. That being said, the Titans are not going anywhere—and they will have a new mix of up-and-coming playmakers leading the way. This new-look Titans squad is going to be one of the more interesting storylines to follow this season, especially when considering the overall competitiveness of Region 7, and the numerous contenders situated elsewhere in the classification. Here’s a brief overview of each of the regions and what to be watching for.

Region 1: There were a couple of first-year coaches that made a strong first impression in Region 1-AAAA this past season. Carver-Columbus made a massive leap in Corey Joyner's debut at the school and was able to follow up a 3-8 effort in 2017 with a strong 9-2 finish. Also, Westover looked much more competitive in region play under first-year head coach Olten Downs. The Patriots went 4-4 in Region 1, but ultimately missed out on the playoffs despite a strong overall showing. For some additional context, Cairo, which earned the region's top seed with an 8-0 conference record posted a 27.5 average margin of victory, but was played closely by Westover in a 27-25 battle. Westover, like many other South and Southwest Georgia communities in 2018, had their seasons disrupted by Hurricane Michael and the Patriots specifically were forced to play an unprecedented stretch of region games to close out the year. Just three days after defeating Americus-Sumter 35-12, Westover had to take on Carver-Columbus on a Monday night. Unlike Westover, Carver was coming off a bye and it dominated the game convincingly 44-13. Just four days later, Hardaway's 15-14 win over Westover earned the Golden Hawks the No. 4 seed, while Westover's season ended in a three-game, seven-day blur. Columbus reached the second round of the state playoffs for the first time since 1974. The Blue Devils' 35-32 playoff victory over Salem put Tre Peterson's abilities on display. Peterson, a 5-foot-10 Class of 2020 RB/DB took a career-high 27 carries for 148 yards and four touchdowns, and also caught a touchdown pass to single-handedly account for all five touchdowns. As for defending region champion Cairo, head coach Steven DeVoursney is returning a team that is going to be well-equipped to not only defend the region title, but also make a serious run at the state crown in 2019. The group made it to last year's quarterfinals and took a 17-13 lead into the final quarter against Troup, before a late Tigers touchdown resulted in a 20-17 defeat. As evidenced by the large margin of victory (27.5 ppg) that Cairo had over its region foes last year, the Syrupmakers are sound on both sides of the football. Region 1 is filled with high scoring offenses and Cairo limited them to just 10 ppg last year. This year's defense is looking even better, with guys like preseason all-state defensive lineman Calvin Issac (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) leading the way. On offense, senior quarterback Robert Matthew Peters is also back after earning Region 1-AAAA Athlete of the Year in 2018. Tay Solomon is coming off a 10-rushing-touchdown sophomore campaign. Senior Jarion Carter and junior Ronnie Baker will also be in the mix. The Syrupmakers also return junior Noah Jones to handle kicking duties. In 2018, Jones sent 52-of-81 kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks, connected on 10-of-19 field goal attempts, including a 46-yarder in the quarterfinals against Troup, and averaged 40.3 yards per punt.

Region 2: Four-time defending Region 2 champion Mary Persons will once again be the team to beat. The Bulldogs have won 21-straight region games, a streak that dates all the way back to the 2014 season. The program has made it past the first round of the playoffs eight-straight seasons entering 2019, and is coming off a school-record 34.77 average margin of victory. If not for a 10-7 loss to Marist in the quarterfinals, Mary Persons may have gone on to win its first state title since 1980. Instead, head coach Brian Nelson will be looking for a new group of Bulldogs to make a run in 2019 after graduating the biggest signing class in school history—including quarterback JT Hartage and running back Quen Wilson. Hartage provided 2,775 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions last season, and Wilson racked up 1,535 rushing yards (8.7 ypc) and 25 of the team's 49 rushing scores. Desmond Williams also graduated after leading the defense with six interceptions. The amount of turnover that Mary Persons will have to overcome could benefit the rest of the Region 2 competition, which includes Spalding, Upson-Lee, West Laurens, Perry and Howard. Spalding hired former Colquitt County offensive coordinator Jeffrey Hammond in February to replace Nick Davis, the former Jags coach that accepted the Fayette County job. Upson-Lee has reached the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, but the Knights have failed to advance past the first round. Last year's team fell behind 27-0 in the first half to Thomson. It was a disappointing start in what marked the Knights' first home playoff game in 28 years, and to make matters worse, their leading rusher Daymon Thomas was sidelined after taking just one carry. Upson-Lee, however, managed to make it a ball-game before it ended in a 34-28 defeat. Head coach Justin Elder will have Jake Davis back under center to quarterback the offense. Davis passed for 1,716 yards and 20 touchdowns with nine interceptions last year as a sophomore. His top target, Demeke Colbert, will also be back in 2019 to help stretch the field. West Laurens failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013 this past season. AJ Mathis, however, returns for his senior season after passing for 1,364 yards, 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The key for Mathis and the offense will be improving upon last year's 46.6 percent completion rate, but head coach Kagan McClain and his staff need guys to step up in the running game to take the pressure off of the passing attack in order to progress. First-year head coach Paul Carroll led Howard to a 6-5 finish in 2018, but the Huskies will need to replace dual-threat quarterback Quintan Sewell, who has started in each of the last two seasons. Perry reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012 last year and also achieved its first winning record (6-5) since the same span. The Panthers struggled running the ball and averaged just 69.5 rushing yards per game. The passing game, however, was a much different story, and Perry will not hesitate to air it out again in 2019. Quarterback Lane Rucker appeared in seven games as a freshman before stepping in as the starter in 2018. Rucker's sophomore season finished with 202-of-384 passing, 3,004 yards and 20 touchdowns with 17 interceptions. Five of those interceptions came their 39-22 playoff loss to Baldwin.

Region 3: The Baldwin Braves took all of Class AAAA by surprise last year. They opened the year 0-5 before a 14-0 win over Greenbrier concluded their non-region schedule. After that, Baldwin took the top seed out of Region 3 and carried a seven-game winning streak into the quarterfinals before falling to Cartersville. Baldwin's biggest loss is Donte Justice, a four-year starter and Kennesaw State signee that played running back and also set the school-record with his 10 interceptions in 2018. Using a difficult non-region schedule to prepare for Region 3 is going to be Baldwin's strategy again this season. Burke County has reached the playoffs in all 12 seasons under Eric Parker with six region titles and a 2011 state title in AAA. Thomson has reached nine-straight playoffs entering 2016 and reached the second round this past season under first-year head coach Michael Youngblood. Richmond Academy will be tasked with replacing the production of quarterback Mason Cobb and running back Torri Taylor. Cross Creek, which was 0-4 in region play last year, will be led by first-year head coach Monte Dilworth from West Broward, Florida to replace Tavis Cummings.

Region 4: Eastside posted the first undefeated regular season in school history in 2018 and reached the quarterfinals before a 41-15 loss to Blessed Trinity. Starting quarterback Noah Cook was extremely efficient leading head coach Troy Hoff's offense and he finished the year with 1,845 passing yards, a 67.7 completion percentage, 25 passing touchdowns, five rushing touchdowns and just three interceptions. Having Cook back in 2019 keeps the Eagles in contention for another run at the state title. Cornerback Jamari Brown will be at Florida A&M this fall after earning Defensive Player of the Year and contributing a team-high six receiving touchdowns in 2018. Also, the program will be without leading rusher Taylor Carter, who accounted for 15 of the team's 32 rushing scores in 2018. Salem posted a 7-4 record last year, its best finish since 2007, and included a 22-14 win over Woodward Academy that ultimately earned the Seminoles a No. 2 seed. Woodward Academy defeated Carver-Columbus 55-40 in the first round of the state playoffs before falling 65-21 to Mary Persons in the second round. The 27.9 ppg allowed by Woodward Academy's defense this past season are the most the War Eagles have allowed since 1954. The No. 4 seed went to Henry County this past season. This year, they are the McDonough Warhawks after the opening of their brand new campus. Additionally, former Cedar Shoals defensive coordinator Eric Solomon was hired to replace Morris Starr as head coach. Hampton carried a 2-37 all-time record as a program before its 4-6 finish this past season. Head coach Chad Ashley has been the Hornets' coach since their inception and will have another opportunity to grow his program in 2019. Luella, North Clayton and Druid Hills went a combined 0-15 against the rest of the region in 2018 and will be looking to emerge from the back of the pack.

Region 5: Defending region champion Cartersville has gone 55-0 against teams not named Blessed Trinity over the last four seasons. Outside of those two playoff losses to the Titans, the program's dominance is incredible. Cartersville has gone undefeated in six of its last seven regular seasons, including each of its last four. Head coach Joey King stepped down following the Canes' 23-9 loss to Blessed Trinity in last year's state championship game, and longtime defensive coordinator Conor Foster is taking over. Foster's defense held opponents to just 8.27 ppg this past season. Offensively, Cartersville is quarterbacked by Louisville-commit Tee Webb, who tossed 35 touchdowns this past season. As solid as Cartersville is, the competiveness of Region 5 has also been on an upwards trend, and we could see a handful of programs battling for the top seed. Troup has finished region runner-up to the Canes in each of the past two seasons. Auburn-commit Kobe Hudson stars as the Tigers' quarterback, and has Player of the Year potential heading into his final varsity season. Last year, Hudson accounted for 50 total touchdowns (32 passing, 18 rushing) and 4,796 total yards of offense (3,386 passing, 1,410 rushing). The Tigers lost to Blessed Trinity in last year's semifinals (51-35) and finished 12-2. Troup's other loss came to Cartersville 43-10. Whether or not Troup can get past Cartersville remains to be seen. Other region opponents, however, played Cartersville much closer than the Tigers. Sandy Creek, for example, lost 7-0 to Cartersville last season and finished 7-4 under second-year head coach Brett Garvin. The Patriots are going to be ultra-talented this upcoming season and the championship expectations and excitement have returned to the proud program

“The biggest strength this year is probably going to be the secondary,” said Garvin. “There will be four seniors back there in the secondary and all four of them have offers. They are pretty athletic, all four of them are about 6-foot, 185 pounds, so they will definitely be the strength in experience as well. We are pretty fast as a unit defensively and also offensively. We’re returning two very good wideouts, our running backs, our quarterback and four or five offensive and defensive lineman.” Another team to watch for is Cedartown, and the Bulldogs gave a preview last season of the level of competitiveness that could be in store this year. Cedartown ultimately earned the No. 4 seed with its 3-3 region record in 2018—The three losses: (Cartersville 21-20, Troup 20-13, Sandy Creek 31-28). Chapel Hill, Central-Carroll and LaGrange went a combined 0-12 against the four playoff teams in 2018 and will have to break through to the upper tier.

Region 6: Region 6 has three new head coaches set to make debuts in 2019. Chris Parker stepped down at Pickens following the Dragons' school-record 11-1 finish and assistant Jeff Nelson took over. The Dragons featured one of the state's top rushing offenses last year, and closed the season with a 315.9 rushing yards per game average. Former Ridgeland coach Cortney Braswell accepted a job at the University of Louisville and the Panthers promoted Kip Klein, who has been with the program for 25 years. The third coaching change is very intriguing. Former Pebblebrook head coach Kevin Saunders stepped down from his position with the Class AAAAAAA Falcons and accepted the job at Gilmer, which carries a state-worst 30-game losing streak into 2019. Saunders is now going to try and build back the Bobcats' program and restore its confidence. Heritage-Catoosa earned the No. 3 seed out of the region last year, but its defense was one of the least effective in all of the classification. The Generals went from allowing 16.9 ppg in 2017 to allowing a whopping 41 ppg. Northwest Whitfield earned the No. 4 seed, but ran into Blessed Trinity in the first round to cap a 6-5 season. LaFayette went 5-5 overall in Paul Ellis' first year as head coach. Southwest Whitfield defeated Gilmer 42-14, but went 0-5 against the rest of the region and finished 3-7.

Region 7: There were two new schools introduced to Region 7 last year—Flowery Branch and Denmark. Their arrival dialed up the competiveness of what was already considered to be one of the toughest regions in the classification. Joining a field of teams that includes Blessed Trinity, Marist, White County, West Hall and Chestatee, Flowery Branch and Denmark will be among those battling for the Region 7 championship again this season. Sophomore quarterback Banks Atkins will lead the Blessed Trinity offense this season with a running attack that features Jackson Hamilton and Elijah Green. Marist fell 10-7 to Blessed Trinity to earn the No. 2 seed last year, and then fell 17-14 to Cartersville in the semifinals. The War Eagles' defense was phenomenal this past year, and was able to hold Flowery Branch scoreless in a 20-0 win. The War Eagles are going to be without U.S. All-American and Notre Dame signee Kyle Hamilton, however, in their secondary. Flowery Branch had to play Blessed Trinity and Marist in back-to-back weeks. The 20-0 loss to Marist followed a 21-20 loss to Blessed Trinity that ended on the Falcons' unsuccessfully gambled two-point conversion attempt that could've won them the game. Earning the No. 4 seed was White County, which lost to first-year program Denmark 28-27, but got in by winning a three-way tie-breaker with the Danes and West Hall. Chestatee closed out the year 0-6 in region play and 1-9 overall. Flowery Branch will be led by South Alabama-commit and three-star quarterback Elijah Gainey this season. Gainey started as a sophomore before the Falcons switched classifications this past season, and his experience will be a great advantage. Lastly, there is perhaps the most intriguing storyline in all of GHSA football this season—The Denmark Danes. Last year's team nearly made the playoffs as a first year school and finished the year 5-5. This occurred, despite the roster consisting entirely of freshmen, sophomores and juniors. As a result, the program is returning all of last year's starters with a few exceptions. Auburn-commit and junior Aaron McLaughlin transferred in from Buford, and last year's starter Ben Whitlock is now playing for Johns Creek. McLaughlin will have Auburn-commit Ze'Vian Capers as his top target. Defensively, returning team captain and First Team All-Region linebacker Zach Burchfield provides the Danes with a physical 6-foot-2, 230-pound presence.

Region 8: St. Pius finished 10-2 last year and captured is seventh region title since 2009. The Golden Lions' defense was back to form and the team scored a 17-0 win over rival Marist before sweeping the Region 8 field. Marist, however, won the rematch 24-8 in the second round. It won't take long to get an idea of what this year's St. Pius team is about; the Golden Lions are traveling to BT to open their season. One of the biggest storylines last year was the drastic turnaround that was seen with the North Oconee program under head coach Tyler Aurandt. Following an 0-10 finish in 2016 and a 1-9 effort in 2017, North Oconee took an 8-2 record into the postseason and defeated Sandy Creek 27-8 before suffering a 35-10 loss to Blessed Trinity in the second round. The North Oconee defense improved from 33.9 points per game allowed in 2017 to 16.8 ppg this past season. Last year's No. 3 seed Oconee County has struggled against the classifications top defenses in the past couple of seasons, but four-star quarterback and LSU-commit Max Johnson will have a chance to break the trend as he prepares for his final varsity season. Stephens County went 5-6 in Wesley Tankersley's debut and earned the No. 4 seed. Madison County was swept by the competition (0-4) and finished 2-8 overall.

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