All four semifinalists bring plenty of talent to the table

Creekside is making its second semifinal appearance in three seasons under coach Maurice Dixon.  (For the AJC)

Credit: For the AJC

Credit: For the AJC

Creekside is making its second semifinal appearance in three seasons under coach Maurice Dixon. (For the AJC)

The brackets in the Class 5A playoffs have determined the four most worthy candidates.

The teams who will compete in this week’s semifinal round are the ones ranked among the top four in the AJC’s final regular-season rankings. Three of the teams are undefeated and the other’s lone loss was against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.

Whoever advances will be worthy of playing for a state championship. The matchups feature Jefferson at Creekside and Coffee at Cartersville. The winners play on Dec. 12 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Of the four finalists, three have won state championships.

Cartersville has the deepest pedigree. The Purple Hurricanes won it all in 1991 under Mike Earwood, 1999 under Frank Barden, and 2015-16 under Joey King. The Canes have made two championship appearances since, in 2017 under King and 2020 under Conor Foster.

Creekside won the school’s only state title in 2013 under coach Olten Downs. This will be the second semifinal appearance since that title.

Jefferson won the school’s lone state championship in 2012 under the legendary T. McFerrin. The Dragons reached the title game in 2020 but lost to Marist.

Coffee reached the championship game in 2017 under coach Robbie Pruitt and lost to Lee County in overtime. The Trojans got to the semifinals in 2020 and lost to Cartersville.

Here’s a look at the four remaining teams:

No. 1 Coffee Trojans (13-0)

Coach: Mike Coe (second season, 23-3)

Best players: Senior Fred Brown is an all-state caliber running back who has rushed for 2,099 yards and scored 21 touchdowns. Quarterback Maurice Hansley has directed the high-paced offense and has thrown for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for five scores. Patrick McCall leads the team with 35 catches and had six last week against Cass. On defense, Elgie Paulk (68 tackles), Jyarius Carter (64 tackles) and Chris Reed (60 tackles) are the leaders. Paulk has 11 sacks and 15 hurries and Lorenzo Harvey has seven tacks and 13 hurries.

How they got there: d. Chamblee 56-0, d. Jones County 45-14, d. Cass 40-0. Closest call: Beat Bolles (Fla.) 17-9 on Sept. 8. Since then the closest margin of victory has been 21 points.

No. 2 Creekside Seminoles (12-1)

Coach: Maurice Dixon (seventh season, 55-29)

Best players: This veteran team is loaded with seniors who are capable of making big plays. Quarterback Vinson Berry has thrown for 2,234 yards and 37 touchdowns and run for four scores. Roderick McCrary has rushed for 1,836 yards and 12 touchdowns and is the team’s leading tackler with 106. Travis Terrell Jr. has run for 911 yards and 12 touchdowns and intercepted three passes. Shane Kelley has 56 receptions for 1,038 yards and 17 touchdowns. On defense, Shumond Johnson, a 6-4, 270-pound end, has nine sacks, and nose tackle Super Cardenteny (six sacks, six hurries) get after the quarterback. Kevon Gray has three of the team’s 18 interceptions.

How they got there: d. Flowery Branch 63-6, d. Dalton 49-24, d. Warner Robins 35-14.Closest call: Closest margin of victory was a one-point win, 21-20 against rival Mays on Sept 29.

Jefferson linebacker Sammy Brown during the 2023 AJC Super 11 photo shoot Monday, July 24, 2023, in Jefferson, Ga. Brown is verbally committed to Clemson. (Jason Getz /


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No. 3 Jefferson Dragons (13-0)

Coach: Travis Noland (second season, 21-3; 210-92 overall in 26 seasons)

Best players: Sammy Brown has shown why he’s considered to be one of the top prospects in the state. The Clemson commit has starred on both sides of the ball; he’s rushed for 2,155 yards and 35 touchdowns, caught 10 passes for four touchdowns, made 141 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and intercepted two passes. Quarterback Gavin Markey has thrown for 1,402 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for five touchdowns. Zay Minish is the leading receiver, with 10 of his 27 receptions going for touchdowns. Rett Hemphill has 118 tackles and 14 tackles for loss, with Jayden Yang next at 111 tackles. Jaden Butts has 45 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions and has blocked two field goals.

How they got there: d. Maynard Jackson 48-14, d. Hiram 42-21, d. Harris County 35-12. Closest call: The 22-14 win over Clarke Central on Sept. 22 set the tone for an unbeaten run through Region 8.

No. 4 Cartersville Purple Hurricanes (13-0)

Coach: Conor Foster (fifth season, 59-6)

Best players: Sophomore Nate Russell, who started as a freshman, brings plenty of big-game experience to the table. He’s thrown for 1,629 yards and 16 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Khristian Lando is the latest in a string of dependable, versatile running backs; he’s rushed for 1,152 yards and 23 touchdowns. Jamari Brice has a team-leading 530 receptions for five touchdowns. Linemen Malachai Toliver and sophomore Langston Hogg were both named first-team all-region. On defense, the up-front duo of Taye Cochran (54 tackles, three sacks, three caused fumbles) and Keylan McCarty (41 tackles, three sacks), linebackers Connor Brasfield (90 tackles, 16 tackles for loss) and Richard Houston, and defensive back Turner Abernathy (51 tackles) were all first-team all-region. Ryan Johnson is the latest in the long line of outstanding kickers produced by the program.

How they got there: d. Centennial 40-0, d. Eastside 28-9, d. Jenkins 35-0. Closest call: The Canes have walked a few tightropes this season, but their 21-14 overtime win over Cass was the tightest.

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