A look at the new Class AAAA

The statewide reclassification that set the regions and classifications for the next two academic school years, bumped two former Class AAAA teams out (Hephzibah, Jefferson) and welcomed in four more, bringing this year’s total to 54 teams and impacting the layout of five of the eight regions in AAAA.

Here’s an overview of which regions were altered, and what the updated regions may look like this upcoming football season. 

Region 1: Americus-Sumter; Cairo; Dougherty; Carver-Columbus; Columbus; Hardaway; Northside-Columbus; Shaw; Westover

Region 1 was already the biggest in Class AAAA, and with the addition of Dougherty High School from its previous home in Region 1-AAA, it will house nine teams for at least the next two seasons. This leaves each of the teams just two non-region contests to prepare for region action. Defending region champion Americus-Sumter finished 9-3 in 2017, falling 35-34 in overtime to Thomson in the second round (and one victory away from stamping double-digit victories for the first time in program history). The Panthers have big shoes to fill this season with all-state running back Kobe Lewis graduating after rushing for 21 touchdowns. Also, Erik Soliday left the program after three seasons and retired from the public school system after a 30-year coaching career to become the head coach of GISA program Tiftarea. Larry Harold will takeover for Soliday after making stops at Macon County, Brunswick and Central-Macon last season. Newcomer Dougherty made the Class AAA playoffs last year, but with a 2-8 record, and lost 43-6 to Liberty County in the opening round. Former head coach Corey Joyner left Dougherty after six years to replace Calvin Arnold at Region 1’s Carver-Columbus, which went 3-8 last year in Arnold’s only year with the Tigers. Dougherty will be led by first-time head coach Damien Gary this season. 

 Region 2: Howard; Mary Persons; Perry; Spalding; Upson-Lee; West Laurens

(unaltered) Region 2 was one of the most interesting regions a year ago. Upson-Lee’s Justin Elder, West Lauren’s Kagan McClain and Perry’s Kevin Smith each stepped in as first-ever head coaches of their respective programs. Elder led Upson-Lee to a 4-6 finish, and even challenged region champion Mary Persons with a 28-21 defeat. McClain and West Laurens went 6-6, ultimately falling 42-31 to Woodward Academy after scoring a 14-7 first-round victory over Northside-Columbus. Smith led Perry to a 5-5 record that certainly ended on a high note. After opening the season 4-1 (the only loss coming 47-19 to Peach County), the Panthers dropped a tough 29-27 game to Howard to open region play and fell four straight times before answering with a 20-14 win over West Laurens to end the season and avoid the region sweep. Howard definitely overachieved last season, following its 1-9 2016 campaign with a 6-5 finish. The Huskies fell 17-14 to Mary Persons in its season finale, and then 27-14 to Americus-Sumter in the opening round. Leading Howard last season was Barney Huster, the long-time head coach that led Tattnall Square Academy to 11 GISA state championships before accepting the head coaching and athletic director role at Howard. Huster left the program after last season to accept the Bibb County Athletics Director job and the search for his replacement continues. Mary Persons swept the region a year ago and has tremendous talent returning to a roster that went 11-3 and reached its second-straight final four. The Bulldogs first loss came in its opener 21-17 against eventual Class AAAAAA state champion Lee County and then they dropped a 35-14 to Class AAA finalist Peach County in non-region action before running into Class AAAA state champion Blessed Trinity (28-7) in the semis. Quarterback J.T. Hartage will be back for his senior season after completing 146-of-215 passes (68 percent), for 1865 yards, 19 touchowns and just 3 interceptions; he also rushed for 321 yards and seven touchdowns. Quen Wilson returns as the leading rusher but will need a running mate to step up and split the carries, especially early in the season. Wilson got better as last season progressed and rushed for a career-high 213 yards of 23 carries and scored four times in Mary Persons’ 51-32 quarterfinal win over Jefferson. Hartage has a slew of targets returning, however, to potentially take Mary Person’s passing game to the next level this season. Antoine Davis was a running back for Tattnall Square two seasons ago, but joined Mary Persons in 2017 and made a smooth transition into a starting cornerback and wide receiver. Class of 2019 receiver Deadrek Alford caught Mary Persons’ only touchdown in its loss to Blessed Trinity and added a nine-catch, 164-yard game in the 28-21 win over Upson-Lee. Tight end Ladamion Sands is primarily a linebacker, but he can certainly contribute as a blocking and receiving tight end. Last year, Sands was the team’s second-leading tackler behind Jatorian Hansford, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound linebacker/safety hybrid that will be playing for Mizzou this fall. 

 Region 3: Baldwin, Burke County, Cross Creek, Richmond Academy, Thomson

Region 3 shrunk to five teams with the departure of Hephzibah, which was dropped all the way to Class AA’s Region 4. Eric Parker is entering his 12th year as Burke County head coach, and led the Bears to the sixth region title of his tenure last season with a 12-1 overall record (lost 28-6 to Marist in the quarterfinals). The Bears will have to replace quarterback Damari Kelly, who signed a scholarship to play wide receiver at Coastal Carolina next fall. Thomson is still searching for a replacement to fill in for head coach Rob Ridings, who (like Soliday)retired as a public school teacher last month and accepted the defensive coordinator position at Prince Avenue Christian.

Region 4: Druid Hills; Eastside; Hampton; Henry County; Luella; North Clayton; Salem; Woodward Academy

Woodward Academy returns all-state running back Tahj Gary and will enter the 2018 season with four consecutive region championships and 46 wins in the same span. The War Eagles, along with the rest of the region, will provide a steep challenge for newcomer Hampton, which arrives from Region 4-AAAAA. This will be Hampton’s fifth all-time season and the Hornets have tallied just two all-time victories in their four years of competition. Still, the Hornets clearly made strides last year with a pair of 1-point losses and a competitive 31-28 loss to Whitewater. Hampton will open its season against Fayette County before facing off with Sandy Creek, who has taken both of its previous two meetings with the Hornets 49-6. 

 Region 5: Cartersville; Cedartown; Central-Carroll; Chapel Hill; LaGrange; Sandy Creek; Troup

(unaltered) If you are wondering what the new Class AAAA will look like next season, Region 5 might provide the most clues. Cartersville will enter the post-Trevor Lawrence era after the nation’s top-ranked prospect from a year ago quarterbacked the Canes to a pair of state titles, broke every career state passing record as a four-year starter, and early-enrolled at Clemson University. Cartersville naturally stole the spotlight in Region 5, but teams like Cedartown, Troup and Sandy Creek may be ready to take it back sooner than later. For Troup, it will be about keeping its passing game going. The Tigers are having to replace quarterback Mason Crowe, who tossed for 332 yards per game and accounted for 40 of the team’s 51 offensive touchdowns last season. Class of 2020 target Kobe Hudson (45 catches, 896 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Class of 2019 receiver Jamari Thrash (61 catches, 1,410 yards, 13 touchdowns) are both back, but only time will tell if Troup can find someone to deliver them the ball to keep up their production. Even with this much offensive firepower a year ago, Troup was still a 52-13 victim to Cartersville in region play. 

 Region 6: Gilmer; Heritage-Catoosa; LaFayette; Northwest Whitfield; Pickens; Ridgeland; Southeast Whitfield

(unaltered) Region 6 and Region 1 were the only ones without a team in the Class AAAA Final Rankings, but Ridgeland, especially has the capacity to insert itself in the rankings this season. Rossville-native Cortney Braswell returned home to take over for new Stephens County coach Wesley Tankersley this season. Braswell is abandoning the years of Wing T offense that has been used at Ridgeland and turning starting quarterback Tanner Hill into more of a game manager this season. Ridgeland opens the season against reigning Class AAA champion Calhoun in the first game of the entire GHSA season so we really won’t have to wait long to see what the new Ridgeland program will look like. 

Region 7: Blessed Trinity; Chestatee; Denmark; Flowery Branch; Marist; West Hall; White County

Region 7 was the smallest in the classification a year ago, but still sent both Blessed Trinity and Marist to the finals. Now, a Flowery Branch team that went 9-3 last season in Ben Halls first season at the helm, and a brand new school, Denmark, turn it into arguably the toughest in Class AAAA. Forsyth County-based Denmark High School is led by former Creekview and Chattahoochee state championship winning coach Terry Crowder and has players from South Forsyth and Lambert forming its inaugural roster. Expected to be bumped up to Class AAAAAAA by 2020, the Danes’ time in Class AAAA will likely be short-lived. Nonetheless, Crowder will build the program’s foundation in a difficult region with the defending state champs and a talented Flowery Branch team that hails from Class AAAAA. 

 Region 8: Oconee County; Madison County; North Oconee; St. Pius; Stephens County

Region 8 lost Jefferson to Class AAA, but despite losing one of its top contenders, there are still plenty of storylines to watch for. Defending region champion St. Pius found its stride last season, following its 0-5 start in non-region play with eight-straight victories that extended into a Final Four appearance. Stephens County is now led by former Ridgeland head coach Wesley Tankersley and could be the Golden Lions’ biggest threat in the region this season. 

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