What to watch: Semifinals

Who will play in the Class AA championship will be determined on Friday, when Fitzgerald plays at Heard County, and Callaway plays at Rockmart. When the AA title game will be played will be determined on Friday, when Atlanta United plays at the New York Red Bulls in the second game of their aggregate series in the MLS Cup Conference Finals.

As long as United doesn’t lose 3-0, or score a goal but lose by four or more, they will host the MLS Cup on the same date as Day 2 of the GHSA championships. If United does manage to collapse with an epic postseason loss — Atlanta fans are more than familiar with that possibility thanks to the Braves and 28-3 — then the AA title game will be played at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8.

If United deviates from Atlanta sports tradition and doesn’t choke, the game presumably moves to Wed., Dec. 12 at 1 p.m. if the GHSA sticks to the same order the games are played.

As for Friday’s semifinal games, we’ll start with the No. 4 Callaway Cavaliers and No. 2 Rockmart Yellow Jackets. The Jackets — a No. 1 seed from Region 7 — are attempting to become the first AA school to go 15-0 since Benedictine in 2016. This is their ninth trip to the semifinals in a program history that dates back to 1930, though their last trip this far came in 1988. Before then, they reached at least the semifinals seven times from 1946-1957, winning their only state title in 1950.

This season marks a breakthrough for the Jackets, whose relevance has been restored by third-year coach Biff Parson. He stopped a skid of three consecutive losing seasons and five straight non-winning seasons, taking them to the second round in ‘16 and ‘17, when they finished 9-3 and reached the second round.

Though the Jackets hail from an underwhelming Region 7, not all of their wins have come against cupcakes. In the regular season, they beat AAAA’s No. 10 Cedartown in their opener and, two games later, beat fellow semifinalists and No. 3 Heard County, 33-0. In addition, they handled, rather easily, 7-AA’s other top teams — Pepperell and Chattooga — by a combined score of 96-10. They opened the playoffs with a 55-0 win over South Atlanta, followed by a 35-23 win over No. 7 Bremen and a 48-13 win over Jefferson County.

In comparison to Rockmart, the Cavs have more recent success in the postseason. For them, it’s been-there, done-that as far as reaching this point, as they’re in the semis for third time since 2013, with all trips coming under coach Pete Wiggins, in his 14th season at Callaway. However, they’re too hoping for the breakthrough this season, as they’ve never made it past this point in a program history that dates back to 1996, when Callaway opened to replace Hogansville High.

The Cavs have two losses, but they also came from a much tougher Region 5, arguably the deepest in AA. It featured three top 10 teams in Bremen, Heard County and Callaway. Their lone 5-AA loss was 13-10 to Heard County, and their other loss came 37-20 to AAAA’s No. 6 Troup. They beat Bremen 37-25 when the Blue Devils were ranked No. 4. Their playoff wins include 27-14 over Elbert County, the shocking 31-13 road win over No. 1, defending state champion Hapeville Charter, and a 35-20 win over No. 10 Washington County. The shock doesn’t come from beating Hapeville Charter, but the score in which they won by.

The Cavs will be the Jackets’ toughest challenge to date. Cavs running back Tank Bigsby — who has ascended to one-of-the-nation’s-most-coveted status — has led their offense all season long. However, Callaway has other was to beat an opponent if too much emphasis is put toward stopping Bigsby, as the Cavs proved last week against Washington County. Though Bigsby — who’d amassed 600 rushing yards and six touchdowns in the first two playoff games — was held scoreless by the Golden Hawks, the Cavs got a big game from Qua Hines, who had touchdown runs of 51, 40 and 2 yards. Also, quarterback Demetrius Coleman threw for a pair of touchdowns. Bigsby still had a strong performance, with Kevin Eckleberry of The LaGrange Daily News telling me he rushed for 91 yards on 20 carries and had 41 receiving yards on two catches, while Hines had 102 yards on 20 carries.

Regardless of who’s running the ball, the Cavs have four-star lineman and Auburn commit Keiondre Jones paving the way.

The Jackets rely heavily on the ground game as well and are led by Markus Smith and Zabrion Whatley, so this game will appear to come down to which defense can most effectively stop the run.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 3 Heard County hosts unranked Fitzgerald. Should the Braves win, they will have already played either team that advances to the title game, having lost to Rockmart and beaten Callaway. The Braves are a completely different team from the one that began the season 1-2, losing back-to-back games to Hapeville Charter and Rockmart by a combined 66-3. They haven’t lost since the Rockmart game and are riding a 10-game win streak that includes wins over No. 4 Callaway, No. 7 Bremen and No. 6 Dublin. Their playoff wins are over Monticello, Douglass and Dublin, which came in Dublin.

The Braves are in the semis for the second year in a row, losing last year to Hapeville Charter. Last year’s trip to the final four was their first in a program that dates back to 1972. Though Emory Jones, who was one of the country’s top quarterbacks for the class of ‘18, is now at Florida, the Braves still have Tennessee-commit Aaron Beasley to lead the way. Quarterback Alijah Huzzie has filled in adequately for Jones as well.

Fitzgerald began the season ranked, starting at No. 10 and then climbing to No. 9 before losing 16-10 to A-Public’s Irwin County in its second game. The Purple Hurricane never returned to the polls, but have nonetheless played at a level worthy of being ranked. They did lose to then-No. 6 Dodge County 28-9, and 28-27 to No. 7 Brooks County in the regular season finale. But they also beat A-Public’s No. 6 Dooly County and then-No. 10 Thomasville. In the playoffs, they upset No. 8 Rabun County on the road in the quarterfinals after beating Harlem and Swainsboro.

Despite their unranked status, it should be no surprise the Purple Hurricane are in the semis given their recent history. This is now the sixth time since 2008 they’ve reached at least this point, and the fourth time in the last five years. They’re still seeking their first state title in a program that dates back to 1908.

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