When measuring the tasks at hand in the semifinals of the Class AAA playoff bracket, the tallest would be thrust upon the shoulders of an undefeated Pierce County (13-0, 5-0) team as it travels into hostile territory Friday at Buck Godfrey Stadium in Decatur to face No. 2 Cedar Grove (12-1, 6-0).
The Bears, under head coach Jason Strickland for the second season, are appearing in their first semifinal game in the history of the program after making the playoffs each year since 2011. Its most recent deep run was a quarterfinal appearance in Sean Pender’s last year as head coach in 2016.
Quarterback Jermaine Brewton, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound sophomore, is 115-of-172 passing for 1,813 yards and 21 touchdowns, with six interceptions. The Bears offense averages 259.2 rushing yards and 136.8 receiving yards. Senior John Jones leads the team in rushing with 1,664 yards and 25 touchdowns. Dee Bethea has rushed for 767 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Pierce, the No. 1 seed from Region 2, moved past Windsor Forest in the first round, 49-21, before shutting out Jackson 45-0 in the second round. In the quarterfinals, Pierce’s stifling defense silenced Monroe Area on the way to a 24-7 victory against one of the most productive offenses in the state, led by quarterback Chandler Byron.
Cedar Grove has a head of steam that will take a bracket-shattering upset to quell. The Saints, who are in their fourth-straight semifinal appearance, have star receiver Jadon Haselwood, who is 62 yards short of the DeKalb County career receiving record with 51 receptions for 990 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is chasing Tucker’s Josh Vann (2,892 yards). Rashad Jordan also has 10 touchdown catches on 38 receptions for 587 yards.
Quarterback Austin Smith is 89-of-132 passing for 1,452 yards and 18 touchdowns, with three interceptions and five rushing touchdowns. Kendall Boney has completed 51 of 80 passes, 14 for touchdowns. Robert Jones III leads the Saints rushing with 903 yards on 90 attempts with 10 touchdowns. Freshman Rashad Dubinion has five touchdowns and 477 yards on 53 carries. Chavon Wright has rushed for nine touchdowns; Mekhi Gilstrap has seven rushing touchdowns, and Kendall Boney has eight rushing touchdowns
And yes, there’s another game, if you haven’t heard, a rematch of sorts.
No. 4 Peach County (11-2, 6-0) will make the nearly 3-hour trek north for a rematch of the 2017 title game against Calhoun (13-0, 8-0). For a series that only has two previous games, this is one of the hottest rivalries in the state, hands down, bar-none.
And there’s clearly a reason.
Let’s make this quick-ish ... it has been a long year, and our memories aren’t all that great.
To recap: At the end of the 2017 title game between Calhoun and Peach, Peach receiver Noah Whittington appeared to make a catch on the left sideline and dive toward the end zone as the Trojans were driving with roughly three minutes left, trailing 10-6. The ball was secured and then came out of Whittington’s grasp as he extended his arm toward the goal line after taking a few steps.
The pass was called incomplete, and all hell broke loose in the ensuing weeks.
Peach County, its fan base and most of the country agreed that the ball was caught. Calhoun fans will argue that Whittington went out of bounds to avoid defender Brannon Spector early in his route. If footage of Whittington’s route was shown to 20 unbiased people from Wisconsin, for example, 10 would say he was re-routed and 10 would say he wasn’t. There was a brush of contact, the extent of which is left to semi-grainy footage and the imagination.
But all of those Wisconsinites would agree the pass was caught.
Peach appealed the game at the GHSA offices in Thomaston a few weeks later, hoping for a rematch, a replay or a re-do of the final few minutes of the game. It was denied, but the GHSA agreed to add a seventh referee, a back judge, to playoff games in 2018. Silver lining.
That didn’t stop the Trojans’ fan base from declaring Peach County the 2017 state champions and creating a now-defunct website, www.peachcountyrings.com, which asked for financial help to provide the team with state-title rings.
All the while, the flames were being stoked on online message boards and social media as the fan bases have bickered back and forth for nearly a year. It’s become a ‘What came first, the chicken, the egg, the receiver going OB or the incomplete pass call?” argument with seemingly no end in sight.
Fast forward to this year.
Calhoun returns a lot of good players. Quarterback Gavin Gray leads the Jackets with 2,405 passing yards. Brannon Spector, a Clemson commitment, plays both ways as a receiver and defensive back. He has 683 receiving yards and 43 tackles. Davis Allen, another Clemson-commitment, also splits duties between tight end and linebacker with 121 tackles and four interceptions.
Peach County quarterback Jaydon Gibson has passed for 1,851 yards and 17 touchdowns. Tijah Woolfolk led the Trojans through the second round with 156 yards against Liberty County. Against Westminster in the quarters, Woolfolk rushed for 109 yards.
Clemson’s third commitment in this game is on the Trojans side, and if Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is reading this, please room Brannon, Davis and Peach’s Sergio Allen together to prove my point that the fan bases created too much drama around this game, not the student-athletes. Spector and the two Allens likely will be great friends in the ensuing years, if they aren’t already.
The fans in attendance Friday should remember that this is a game, and these are kids.
So when you get into the stands, shake the hand of an opposing fan and nestle into your seat. Keep it cordial on both sides and enjoy a quality game between two of the best football programs in the state. This game is for the kids, not for you. So act like it.