Perhaps no team in the Class AAAAAA football playoffs got less of a reward for winning a region championship than Johns Creek.
The Gladiators, ranked No. 7, went undefeated in Region 7 and suffered their only loss of the season against St. John’s College High School (D.C.), which is ranked in the top five in several national polls.
Their prize for winning the second region title in school history? A first-round date at home against sixth-ranked Harrison.
Harrison would have been the Region 6 champion for the second consecutive season if it had beaten No. 2 Creekview last week in the regular-season finale. However, Creekview won 36-35 in overtime, dropping the Hoyas into a three-way tie for second place with Sequoyah and Allatoona. After sorting through the region’s point-differential tiebreaker, Harrison ended up with the No. 4 seed and a first-round trip to Johns Creek.
The computer Maxwell Ratings project this game as a virtual toss-up, with Harrison a two-point favorite.
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Johns Creek began playing football in 2009 and reached the playoffs in its third and fourth seasons, only to get knocked out in the first round each time (by Flowery Branch in 2011 and North Gwinnett in 2012). The Gladiators won their first region title in 2016 but were eliminated again in the first round, this time by Hughes.
The Gladiators bottomed out after that loss, going 0-10 and 1-9 the next two seasons in the highest classification, but have become a force in two years under coach Matt Kemper (now at Roswell) and two under Matt Helmerich.
Helmerich is hopeful that his Gladiators, and the entire Region 7 contingent, can make some noise in the playoffs this year.
“I do see our region as underrated,” Helmerich told GHSF Daily’s Todd Holcomb last week. “There are some excellent coaches and talent in our region. Alpharetta gave Coffee a run for their money in the third round last year, and Centennial was one play away from beating a very good Mays team in round two. There's some good football in North Fulton, and I'm hoping we can prove that in this year's playoffs.”
Here are some of the other stories to watch in the first round of the Class AAAAAA playoffs:
*Toughest draw: Douglas County
Douglas County finished tied with Creekside for first place in Region 5 but lost to the Seminoles and settled for the No. 2 seed. The Tigers will open at home against Habersham Central, a team projected as a 10-point underdog by the Maxwell Ratings. The task is likely to get a lot tougher after that, potentially taking them on the road against No. 2 Creekview, No. 1 Lee County and No. 4 Stephenson in the next three rounds. By comparison, Creekside wouldn’t play a team ranked higher than No. 5 until the semifinals.
*Best first-round matchup of regions: Region 1 vs. Region 4
Every year, some unfortunate region gets paired up with powerful Region 1 in the first round of the AAAAAA playoffs, and this year the task falls to Region 4. Region 1’s teams (Lee County, Valdosta, Northside-Warner Robins and Coffee) were 7-1 in the first round the past two years. However, Region 4 has three teams – Stephenson, Tucker and Lovejoy – that are playoff regulars and a No. 4 seed in Mundy’s Mill that competed well against them. Still, Maxwell projects all four Region 1 teams to win by at least 11 points.
*Worst record in the field: Gainesville (2-8)
Gainesville started the season a program-worst 0-7 and finished with its worst regular-season record since 1999. However, the Red Elephants’ victories over Winder-Barrow and Apalachee in region play were enough to grab fourth place in Region 8 and earn their 19th consecutive playoff berth. Gainesville opens the playoffs at Region 5 champ Creekside. Other teams with losing records in the AAAAAA field are Richmond Hill (4-5) and Bradwell Institute (4-6) of Region 2 and Greenbrier (3-7) and Evans (3-7) of Region 3.
*Best teams sitting at home: Dalton and Hughes
Dalton (6-4) was the only team in AAAAAA with a winning record that didn’t make the playoffs and had the highest ranking (No. 20 in MaxPreps) of any team not in the field. Dalton dug itself an early hole with an 0-3 start in Region 6 play but would have made the playoffs if it had beaten Allatoona on Oct. 26, a game it lost 27-14. Hughes (4-6) also hurt itself with a slow start (1-3) in Region 5 but battled back into contention. The Panthers lost 10-7 to Northgate on Oct. 26 in a game that ultimately cost them a playoff berth.
*Best game that could come too early: Lee County vs. Creekview
In the GHSA brackets, which are not seeded from top to bottom (except in Class A), there’s always the risk of two of the top teams meeting early in the playoffs. That could be the case this year in the quarterfinals, where top-ranked Lee County and No. 2 Creekview would meet. Lee County, the defending state champion, opens against Mundy’s Mill and would face either Lakeside-Evans or Effingham County in Round 2. Creekview opens against Pope and would play the Douglas County-Habersham Central winner.
(R4 #3) Lovejoy at (R1 #2) Valdosta
(R3 #4) Evans at (R2 #1) Glynn Academy
(R6 #3) Allatoona at (R7 #2) Centennial
(R5 #4) Northgate at (R8 #1) Dacula
(R1 #3) Northside-Warner Robins at (R4 #2) Tucker
(R2 #4) Bradwell Institute at (R3 #1) Grovetown
(R7 #3) Alpharetta at (R6 #2) Sequoyah
(R8 #4) Gainesville at (R5 #1) Creekside
(R2 #3) Richmond Hill at (R3 #2) Greenbrier
(R1 #4) Coffee at (R4 #1) Stephenson
(R5 #3) Mays at (R8 #2) Lanier
(R6 #4) Harrison at (R7 #1) Johns Creek
(R3 #3) Lakeside-Evans at (R2 #2) Effingham County
(R4 #4) Mundy’s Mill at (R1 #1) Lee County
(R8 #3) Habersham Central at (R5 #2) Douglas County
(R7 #4) Pope at (R6 #1) Creekview