Hapeville Charter 35, Rabun County 23

TIGER — Seven seasons ago, the Hapeville Charter Hornets football program came into existence. On Friday, they became state champions, defeating the Rabun County Wildcats 35-23 in the Class AA title game.

The Hornets (14-1) earned their first-ever championship the hard way, losing three consecutive coin tosses to play on the road for every game past the second round — including on Friday. The championship game was originally scheduled for Dec. 9 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but weather forced the GHSA to fall back on its contingency plans, which called for the game to be played at one of the participating teams’ home field.

Hapeville Charter’s playoff road wins included the Benedictine Cadets, who were the top-ranked, defending state champs, in the quarterfinals and Heard County — which features dual-threat quarterback and Ohio State commit Emory Jones — in the semifinals.

The Hornets took Friday’s road challenge in stride, jumping to a 28-3 lead and holding the state’s highest-scoring team to a season-low 23 points. Hornets senior quarterback Hajj Malik-Williams accounted for all five of his team’s touchdowns, throwing for three and rushing for two.

“I give credit to all my guys,” Williams said. “We did it as a team and this is truly a team I’ll never forget.”

The top defense in AA also lived up to its billing, sacking Wildcats senior quarterback and AJC Player of the Year finalist Bailey Fisher six times for a loss of 45 yards and intercepting him twice. Heading in, the Wildcats had never trailed in any game this season.

“At practice, we kept saying ‘one more game, one more game,’” senior defensive end Caleb Kelly said. “Even though we didn’t play in the Benz, we still had one more game. And it wasn’t really about the Benz, it was about the ring and that’s what we’ve been saying the whole season.”

Rabun County started the game’s opening drive from its own 29 and quickly moved to the Hornets’ 14. But on third-and-8, Fisher was intercepted in the end zone by senior cornerback Christopher Smith, giving the Hornets the ball on their own 20.

The Hornets then used 18 plays and 7 minutes, 57 seconds to move the ball 80 yards for their first touchdown, which came on Williams' 15-yard pass to Antawan Smith Jr. on third-and-11. On the drive, the Hornets converted on three third downs and a fourth down.

The Wildcats took the next possession all the way to the Hornets’ 1, but Fisher was stuffed on a first-and-goal quarterback sneak. He then fumbled the snap on the next play for a 4-yard loss and a false start penalty backed them into a third-and-10 situation. They settled for Andrew Barnes’ 27-yard field goal, which brought the score to 7-3 with 7:59 left in the half.

The Hornets would close out the half scoring touchdowns on their next two drives, both coming on Williams runs of 5 and 1 yards, giving them a 21-3 lead heading into the locker room. They then scored on the second half’s opening drive, using 12 plays and nearly six minutes and ending with Williams’ 7-yard touchdown pass to Andunte Devereux. That gave Hapeville Charter a 28-3 lead with 6:24 left in the third quarter.

The Wildcats scored their first touchdown with 1:29 left in the third quarter on Fisher’s 27-yard pass to Braxton Hicks. On their next drive, they attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-10 from their own 42 but it ended with Fisher’s second interception, this one by senior safety M.J. Latimer.

The Hornets would score their final touchdown with 3:17 left on Williams’ 20-yard pass to Kivante’ Johnson on the drive’s first play, ending what little hopes Rabun County had to rally. The Wildcats managed two touchdowns inside the final two minutes, but never threatened the Hornets’ lead.

“You can’t say enough about my team and the resilient bunch that we have,” said Winston Gordon, the only coach Hapeville Charter has ever had. “I’m just proud of our 25 seniors. They’re an outstanding group of kids.

“We’re state champions and we built it from the ground up.”

The Hornets finished undefeated against Peach State teams, with their only loss coming to Alabama’s Thompson in Week 2.

For the Wildcats (14-1), it was the best season in a program history that dates back to 1949. Previously, they’d never been past the quarterfinals, but coach Lee Shaw has transformed the Wildcats into a perennial contender since coming to Tiger six seasons ago. They’ve made the playoffs and have improved their record in each season since he arrived.

“Just an incredible run,” Shaw said. “I’m so proud of these guys…we played our hearts out, but we made some mistakes. We played a great football team and they earned this win.”

Williams finished 13 of 15 passing for 168 yards and rushed 12 times for 41 yards. His leading receiver was Devereux, who had five catches for 55 yards. Marcus Carroll led the Hornets in rushing with 69 yards on 13 carries.

Fisher finished 15 of 27 passing for 191 yards passing and rushed for a team-leading 108 yards on 28 carries. Austin Jones had five catches for 72 yards and a touchdown.

Hapeville Charter 7 14 7 7 35

Rabun County 0 3 7 7 6 - 23

H - Antawan Smith Jr 15 pass from Hajj Malik-Williams (Alex Barnett kick)

R - Andrew Barnes 27 FG

H - Williams 5 run (Barnett kick)

H - Williams 1 run (Barnett kick)

H - Andunte Devereux 7 pass from Williams (Barnett kick)

R - Braxton Hicks 27 pass from Bailey Fisher (Barnes kick)

H - Kivante’ Johnson 20 pass from Williams (Barnett kick)

R - Austin Jones 48 pass from Fisher (Barnes kick)

R - Austin Sosebee (run failed)

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