Class AAAAA had as many top-flight teams as any other division in the state. In the end it was the regular suspects that were left standing and it was mighty Buford that won the title before getting bumped up next for next season.
Buford really was the story of the year. Just when the Wolves seemed to be losing their championship luster – they hadn’t won a state title since 2014 – they played their way through a series of injuries and still claimed the school’s 12th state championship.
This one was different, too. The Wolves lost the season finale to Clarke Central and had to go on the road for the second round against Ware County, the third round against Carrollton and the semifinals against Jones County. Each of those road trips had a high degree of difficulty.
The Carrollton win required overtime and held the most consequence. With their top two running backs injured, the Wolves introduced sophomore Victor Venn and saw him reel off 200-plus yards. They watched money-man Hayden Olsen kick the winning field goal in overtime.
The state championship win over Warner Robins saw the Wolves battle until the end and score a late touchdown on a long, ball-chomping drive to force an overtime. They wound up winning with Olsen – again – delivering the winning field goal kick.
Much of the credit goes to first-year head coach Bryant Appling, who ditched the spread attack and returned the Wolves to their emphasis on the running game. And Appling, who had most recently been the team’s defensive coordinator, again encouraged Buford to play fundamental football and hit hard.
Appling wasn’t afraid to show his emotions either He sprinted around the field in excitement when the Wolves beat Archer early in the season and took an encore at Georgia State Stadium at the end of the championship game. No wonder the kids, parents and community loved him.
About Warner Robins: The Demons had their biggest moment in the playoffs when they defeated Rome, a second-round match that was more like a state semifinal. From that point, coach Marquis Westbrook’s team was unstoppable. The misfortune for Warner Robins came in the final, where they lost for the third straight season. It was a disappointing pill, but the Demons should be loaded again next season and found an excellent quarterback in Jalen Addie.
Best coaching job: There were a lot of great coaching efforts this season, none better than Chad Phillips at Starr’s Mill. He got the Panthers past an early season slump, won a region championship and helped the team reach the Final Four for the first time since 2010. They definitely overachieved.
Best turnaround: Jared Zito took Ola from one win to seven wins and into the state playoffs for only the second time in the school’s career. Honorable mention goes to Lithia Springs, which made the state playoffs for the first time in the first year under coach Corey Jarvis.
Best offensive player: Jo’quavious Marks of Carver rushed for 1,961 yards and scored 23 touchdowns – despite missing two games with an injury. He averaged 217.9 yards per contest. The Mississippi State commit finished his career with 6,833 yards – ninth-best in Georgia history -- and 59 touchdowns. He ran for at least 1,000 yards in four seasons and averaged 158.9 yards in 43 career games. When your name is on the same list as Herschel Walker’s, you’re in good company.
Best defensive player: William Anderson of Dutchtown is strong, fast, physical and unstoppable. He has been the key piece of the Bulldogs’ defense the last two years. No wonder he was a prime target for Alabama. This young man could be playing on Sundays in a few years.
Changing times: Reclassification will have a huge impact on the map for 2020. Moving up to Class AAAAAA will be state champion Buford and region champions Carrollton and Riverwood, as well as other mighty teams like Rome and Kell. That leaves the door for existing powers like Warner Robins, Ware County, Wayne County, Dutchtown, Stockbridge, Southwest DeKalb and Clarke Central to make their move. Should be fun.
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