Buford is one of four teams that reached the second round of the AAA state playoffs last season, before being reclassified into AAAA. Cartersville, Woodward Academy and St. Pius X also made the move up, after winning postseason games in AAA last year.
“I think four-A, after 6-A, might be the toughest division in the state, with all the teams that remained, plus the addition of the AAA teams that includes Buford,” said St. Pius coach Paul Standard, whose Golden Lions move into Region 6-AAAA with rival Marist.
Alan Chadwick enters his 30th season at Marist and is one of remaining AAAA perennial powers that are expected to contend again. Sandy Creek, Carrollton and defending champion Griffin all will have a say.
“I think it’s safe to say whoever wins four-A will have earned it,” Standard added.
Soon after winning the program’s first state championship since 1978, the Griffin Bears were rocked by an academic controversy that ended coach Steve DeVoursney’s 13-year tenure. New coach Jarrett Laws says his program is only looking ahead and that process began face-to-face.
“One of the first things I did was meet with the team leaders,” said Laws, who came over from Drew High School. “I told them that ‘I want to listen to you. I’ve been brought in to help, but I can’t help if I don’t know what the ills are.’ I had a notepad and just wrote down what the players said their desires were for this program.”
Laws inherits a talented roster, featuring the state’s best receiving corps in Keyston Fuller, Chris Owens and Darquavious Magham and a superstar linebacker in Jordan Colbert. The Bears must replace record-setting quarterback Jaquez Parks, though. Parks compiled 554 yards of offense in leading Griffin to a 56-35 win over Carrollton in last season’s AAAA title game.
Senior Anforne Stroud is slated to be the Bears’ starting quarterback this season. As a freshman, Stroud was in a “neck-and-neck” competition with Parks to be the starting quarterback. Stroud started five games as a sophomore, while Parks was injured, and led the Bears to four wins during that stretch.
“Anforne is a kid that has been in preparation for this for two years,” Laws said. “If you couple that with the fact that he was the starting safety last year on a state championship team, he brings a wealth of knowledge to the table.”
Sandy Creek: A ton of talent that won a ton of football games and two state titles departed the Creek after last season's 11-1-1 campaign that was considered disappointing by the Patriots' highest of standards. Coach Chip Walker admits that he won't be replacing some of last season's stars with equal talent. But, overall, Walker likes what he has.
“I don’t think this team can replace those players that went on to the next level individually, but it can as a team. And that’s important,” said Walker. “That’s probably more important in some aspects at the high school level than just straight talent.”
Don’t be fooled: The Patriots still posses plenty of talent, including senior Eric Swinney, who Walker describes as the best tailback in the state. Joining Swinney in the offensive backfield will be Walker’s son, quarterback Trey Walker. Last season’s second leading rusher, Delvin Weems, transferred to Tucker in the offseason.
Team to Watch: Arabia Mountain: Multiple coaches pointed to coach Stanley Pritchett's Rams as a program on the rise. Arabia Mountain went 7-3 last year in AAAAA, but drop down into Region 6-AAAA this season, along with Marist and St. Pius.
New QB at Marist: Senior Sam Phelts takes over a quarterback for the War Eagles' wishbone attack. "He's been in the program and knows what's going on," Chadwick said of his new signal-caller.
Ready or not: Woodward Academy jumps up to AAAA and lands in ultra-competitive Region 5 with perennial powers Sandy Creek and Carrollton. Woodward Academy reached the AAA playoffs the past six seasons, but War Eagles coach John Hunt isn't sure his program is ready for step-up to AAAA.
“We were only a few kids above the cutline,” Hunt said. “Our current enrollment qualifies for AAA.”
Corner Marcus Hyatt, who Hunt pointed to as among the fastest on the roster, will bolster the defense. Tailback Elijah Holyfield, who Hunt called his strongest player, will be featured in the War Eagles’ pro-style offense
Breakdown of all the new coaches in AAAA.
First AAAA rankings:
1. Buford (15-0)
2. Sandy Creek (11-1-1)
3. Griffin (15-0)
4. Marist (11-3)
5. Carrollton (13-2)
6. Thomas County Central (8-3)
7. St. Pius (9-4)
8. Woodward Academy (9-3)
9. Whitewater (7-4)
10. Westover (9-3)