On Wednesday, 1 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the No. 3 Heard County Braves (12-2) will take on the No. 2 Rockmart Yellow Jackets (14-0) for the Class AA championship.
One team — the Braves — stumbled out of the gate and put themselves behind the 8-ball early, while the other team — the Jackets — for the most part, steamrolled its competition all season long. Now, the two teams’ paths will cross yet again in a rematch from Sept. 7, which Rockmart won at home, 33-0.
Both coaches are expecting a different game than shutout posted, when the game ended at halftime after the Braves decided to quit after the second quarter.
On Sunday, Sept. 9, two days after a demoralizing the defeat to Rockmart, coach Tim Barron — in his 17th season at Heard County — sat in his office thinking. Three games into the season, his team was already at a crossroads, sitting at 1-2 and having been outscored 66-3 in the previous two games against Rockmart and No. 1 Hapeville Charter, which beat them 33-3.
What started as a season with high expectations — in which they began ranked No. 2 and were coming off their first-ever semifinal appearance in a program that dates back to 1974 — was now a question mark.
“When you lose a game like we lost against Rockmart, where you don’t even finish the game, first of all, as a coaching staff, you take a hard look at what you’re doing from a scheme and personnel standpoint to prepare,” Barron said. “You’ve got to go through your program with a fine-tooth comb, over and over, and figure out how a team this talented can come out playing at this level. I started with me and the staff, then worked my way down to the kids.”
Barron started by meeting with his staff on Sunday and they had a long talk. The next day, Barron held individual meetings with players on the team.
“With the kids, we laid everything out, up front and honest,” Barron said. “We challenged them and told them they have a choice. This can be what we’re going to be, or we can go to work and try to get better, and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The Braves chose the latter, turning their season around and transforming a 1-2 start to a 12-2 record heading into the championship game. Along the way, they emerged from a Region 5-AA that featured three top 10 teams — including two in the top five — to earn the No. 1 seed, beating No. 2 Callaway and No. 5 Bremen. In the playoffs, they beat Monticello, a Douglass team that was 10-1, No. 6 Dublin and Fitzgerald in the semifinals to advance to their first-ever title game.
This is a very different team than the one that reached the semifinals a year ago. For one, they made it this far without Emory Jones, who graduated after last season rated as one of the country’s top dual-threat quarterbacks before signing with Florida.
Leading in Jones’ place is Alijah Huzzie, a senior quarterback who has successfully filled in with nearly 1,500 passing yards and 18 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. Two-way starter and Tennessee commit Aaron Beasley could eclipse the 2,000 rushing yards mark in the title game and has 54 tackles and three picks at safety.
Barron knew moving on from Jones would be a challenge — especially early on — but he believed in Jones’ successor.
“Huzzie was behind Jones for three years,” Barron said. “I was always confident in Alijah. Early in the year I knew he was inexperienced because he didn’t play much, but as far as right now, he’s playing at a level that is unreal. He could have started for a lot of teams across the state as a sophomore, but he just happened to be behind Emory. As far as the transition, it’s been as smooth as possible.”
As hot as the Braves have been since losing to the Jackets, it’s time for them to find out just how far they’ve come when the two meet again. One thing is guaranteed — it will be a different game.
Back in September when the teams played, Beasley didn’t travel to Rockmart. Huzzie, also a two-way starter, was limited to just offense and wasn’t permitted to run the ball.
“We wanted to preserve him for region play,” Barron said.
In addition, they were adjusting to receiver Collin Wright having just torn his ACL, and tackle Anthony Graley (concussion) and linebacker Kesean Johnson (ankle) were out. All were starters.
At Rockmart, rain had the field in less-than-ideal condition, and lightning delayed the start of the second half. Per GHSA rules, each strike of lightning starts a 30-minute delay. Around 10 p.m., after the second lightning strike reset the 30-minute delay clock, Barron made the decision for the Braves to cut their losses and head home.
“We met as a staff and decided it was in the best interest of the team to not go back out,” Barron said. “It was pouring down pretty good, we had several kids injured and I just didn’t see anything positive that could come out of waiting until midnight...I spoke to (Jackets coach Biff Parson) and we had a conversation. I wanted to make sure he understood the bind we were in and that it was the best decision for our program.”
Barron wasn’t worried about how his program may be perceived by outsiders for forfeiting.
“I know it probably sounds crazy, but literally no,” Barron said. “As coaches, you have to make the best decision for the program. If it looks good in the eyes of people on social media, that doesn’t mean you can waver on what’s best for the program. Obviously, I read some of the comments (on social media) ...We weren’t coming back and beating them in the second half, and we couldn’t afford for anyone else to get hurt. The field conditions, if we had gone back out, would have been unreal. It was still raining. We talked as a staff and did what was best to move forward, which was to take (the loss), tuck our heads and go home.”
The rematch will be about redemption for the Braves, Barron said.
“It is but it’s for ourselves,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with Rockmart. We just want to show the people in the state of Georgia that we can play better football than we did that night.”
While the Braves were finding themselves early in the season, the Jackets appeared to be a team on a mission from the start. After exiting in the second round each of the past two seasons, they entered 2018 under the radar in the eyes of pollsters as an unranked team.
Right off the bat, against AAAA’s No. 10 Cedartown, the Jackets won 20-14. They wouldn’t be tested again until the semifinals, where they beat Callaway 28-22. As a result, they’re the only remaining unbeaten team in AA, and they’re one win away from their first undefeated season since 1950, when they finished 12-0 to claim the Class A title.
Aside from Cedartown and Heard County, the only other ranked teams the Jackets played were Bremen and Callaway in the playoffs. Unlike the Braves, the Jackets played in one of the weaker regions in AA — Region 7 — where they outscored their competition 371-40, including three shutouts.
Despite posting mostly crooked scores all season, Parson — in his third season at Rockmart after three seasons at Banks County and stints in NFL Europe, the Canadian Football League, college and as an assistant Dublin, Lamar County and Mary Persons — believes the team has faced many challenges in 2018.
“We are tested every week,” Parson said. “One of the things we’ve done at Rockmart since I’ve been here, is we have a standard — our bible, so to speak. We hold them accountable to the standard. You’ve got to do right at school, on the field, at home and in the community. If you don’t, there’s consequences and you’ll be disciplined...I’m not worried about them being tested on the field because they’re tested everyday within the culture of our program.”
Plus, Parson is quick to remind, they’ve been tested on the field as well.
“Bremen challenged us,” he said of a game the Jackets won 35-23, the most points they’ve allowed all season. “Against Callaway, they had the ball (in the red zone) with (less than a minute in the game) and had a chance to win, and our defense prevailed. We try to put them through adversity in practice so that there’s no shock (during games).”
The Jackets are led by two-way starting senior running back-defensive back Markus Smith, who has rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns and has 41 tackles, three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. Senior Zabrion Whatley also has more than 1,000 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
As for the Heard County forfeit earlier in the season, Parson chooses to steer clear from commenting.
“I don’t really have any thoughts about it,” he said. “I don’t want to speak any disrespect to him or his program. He and his staff had to make sure they did what was best for them, so we don’t judge. It it what it is and we’re moving forward.”
With so many variables different for the rematch, Parson isn’t expecting another Rockmart blowout.
“To me, it will come down to the trenches,” he said. “They’ve got athletes, we’ve got athletes, so when you’re even in those areas, it’s usually a game that’s won up front. Can we control the line or can they? Special teams will come into play. Who can field a punt or a kickoff? Who will make the first mistake? How will a team weather the storm? Because, there will be adversity for both sides.
“It’s two really good teams, and I don’t expect a shootout or a 3-0, knockdown, drag-out either. It will be a close game because both teams are playing well and playing with confidence.”
Win or lose, the Jackets have already placed themselves in historic territory when it comes to program history. It’s their best season since 1988, when they reached the semifinals, and it’s their first title game appearance since 1957. They experienced the bulk of their success in the 1950s, when they won their only title and reached at least the semifinals six times.
Parson wanted the teams of past to be joined by more than just the history books, so for the Jackets’ Thanksgiving-day practice in preparation for their quarterfinal game against Jefferson County, he invited all past Rockmart letterman to attend, wearing their letterman jackets. The former players answered the call, with Parson estimating 60-70 people showing up, and 15-20 former players speaking to the team to share their experience.
In Parson’s eyes, the practice was a success.
“I’m an old-school guy,” he said. “I like the past history and traditions of schools because it paved the way for a lot of the kids these days. I know there’s a big gap at Rockmart since they’d played and practiced on Thanksgiving, so I wanted anyone who had played for Rockmart in the past to be there.”
One of the former Jackets who spoke was on the 1950 championship team.
“The emotion that came out of his eyes was special,” Parson said. “He got choked up, which got me emotional, and it made the kids understand the importance of where they are.”
Friday night Wednesday afternoon lights
For the second year in a row, the GHSA has had to stray from the tradition of playing championship games on Friday and Saturday at the home of the Falcons. Previously, games were played in the Georgia Dome, and last year was supposed to be the first at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
However, after the first game, which was riddled with controversy, weather conditions forced the GHSA to postpone the remaining seven championships and move them to a venue of one of the participating teams, with a coin toss deciding home field advantage. In AA, that led to Hapeville Charter traveling to Rabun County, where the Hornets won 35-23 for the program’s first-ever championship.
This year, the Atlanta United played for the MLS Cup on Saturday, blocking Day 2 of the GHSA championships. As a result, the GHSA fell back on its contingency plans of playing the title games on Tuesday and Wednesday, two days never reserved for high school football.
The 1 p.m. Wednesday start time for AA left the Braves and Jackets to formulate a one-off routine for their biggest game of the season.
Barron is OK with the GHSA’s contingency plans.
“I think for the kids, when the season starts, the goal is to make it to The Benz,” Barron said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to play in that venue, so for us we’d rather play there Wednesday than not.”
To prepare for a Wednesday game, Barron said they pushed their normal routine back one day and wound up with two extra days of practice, which took the place of a game that would have been played on Friday.
“Everyone I reached out to who played in (a championship) game suggested not putting too much on the players,” Barron said. “They’re excited, but they’re physically and mentally tired.”
Parson explained Rockmart’s routine.
“You’ve got a Friday and Saturday that you normally don’t have because you’re playing the game the next week,” he said. “For us, we treated the week the same as any other, except we didn’t do a Thursday walkthrough. There’s a Christmas parade on Friday that we’d normally be in, so that takes up that day. We’ll have Saturday off and bring them in on Sunday for a Wednesday game.”
One positive for the students of both schools: there will be no class on championship Wednesday.
“There’s one red light in the whole town,” Barron said. “No one will be around. There aren’t enough substitute teachers, and you’re not telling the kids that they’re missing this game. At least this way, there won’t be any playing hooky.”
“We’re cancelling school and rounding up fan buses and selling tickets,” Parson said. “It’s a great atmosphere right now at Rockmart.”
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