The least dramatic classification in the state provide the most drama in the postseason this season and we have the Bainbridge Bearcats to thank for it.
Expansion to seven classifications hurt Class AAAAA more than any other and created a strata of elite teams. Those big boys – Rome, Buford, Warner Robins, Stockbridge and Carrollton – seemed almost a certainty to win the state championship.
Problem was, no one told Bainbridge.
The Bearcats provided one of the most compelling storylines in many years. Think of any of your favorite sports movies – the ones with the unbelievable ending – and Bainbridge topped them all on the way to its state championship. They were real-life Rockys and Rudys. And they proved that there may be some validity to many of those sports clichés that coaches spout so often.
Consider this: Bainbridge won the Class AAAAA championship in a three-overtime classic against Warner Robins. Bainbridge blew a 28-point lead and still won. They did it despite starting the playoffs with a 5-5 record.
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They won it despite facing five ranked teams in the playoffs and mowing them all down. They began by beating No. 8 Jones County, the followed the next week by giving No. 5 Wayne County its first loss of the season. The fervor ramped up when the Bearcats went to No. 2 Buford and won on a drizzly night, then reached a fever pitch when they returned a squib kick for a touchdown in the final two minutes to stun No. 6 Stockbridge.
That just set up the classic game against No. 3 Warner Robins, the same team that had beaten them 38-0 just a few weeks earlier. But the Bainbridge defense and special teams, which carried the team for must of the postseason, rose up with critical stops and enabled the Bearcats to walk away with its first state championship since 1982.
“The only people that believed was the people on this field,” Bainbridge coach Jeff Littleton said.
Here are few other highlights of the 2018 season:
Welcome back, Panthers: Southwest DeKalb regained some of its glory days by going undefeated and winning the region championship. The Panthers rejoined the state rankings in midseason and finished No. 7. But the Panthers crashed in the first round of the playoffs against Loganville to put a damper on things. Still, coach Damien Wimes has the program headed in the right direction.
The Banneker revival: The ending wasn’t great – they lost in the first round of the playoffs – but the Banneker Trojans had a tremendous regular season. Coach Mario Allen’s club made huge strides in his second season, lost only to Class AAAAAAA quarterfinalist Hillgrove in the regular season, and won the school’s first region title. Hard to believe this is the same school that didn’t win a game for two years.
The Dutchtown surge: Coach Clifford Fedd brought a tough, defensive-minded mentality to Dutchtown when he took the job in 2017. It paid off this season when the Bulldogs won the region championship – and knocked off Stockbridge in the process – thanks to its bone-jarring defensive style. They gave Rome a full measure in the quarterfinals, ending the season 12-1. Looks like this program will be an on-going contender.
Fromm-to-Jones: The duo of quarterback Tyler Fromm and Marcayll Jones propelled Warner Robins to the state title game. Jones set a state record with 115 catches for 2,047 yards. Fromm threw for 4,274 yards and 46 touchdowns. They’ll go down as one of the top pass catching connections in Georgia history.
Best player: Jamious Griffin of Rome rushed for 2,815 yards and 38 touchdowns. Probably could have been a lot more if he’d played in the fourth quarter of most of those lopsided Region 7 games. That’s the fourth-best rushing season in GHSA history and only 367 yards off the state record. Griffin has committed to N.C. State, but is being wooed by new Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins, where he would join his brother Quan.
Looking ahead to 2019: Hey, spring practice will be here before you know it. Who will be No. 1 going into the next season. It may just be Bainbridge, which returns its backfield, but loses some outstanding defensive players in Roman Harrison, Randy Fillingame and Bryce Worthy. But with quarterback Quayde Hawkins, running back Caleb McDowell and defensive end Tahari Tate coming back, don’t be surprised to see the Bearcats at the top of the preseason rankings. They certainly won’t be an unranked surprise in 2019.