Class 2A blog: Semifinals preview

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Thomasville seeks redemption against Callaway; Fitzgerald, Swainsboro gear up for defensive battle

ICYMI: Check out Ep. 41 of The Class 2A Blogcast for further semifinals coaches and interviews with coaches from the four remaining teams, plus a members of the media.

Ahead of the Thomasville’s quarterfinals matchup with Gunner Stockton and the top-ranked Rabun County Wildcats, Bulldogs coach Zach Grage did something he rarely does: get frustrated with his staff.

“I haven’t really ever fussed at our coaches, but I thought Monday we came in and we were trying to do a little too much and change up our schemes for what (Rabun County) presented — especially on the defensive side of the ball,” said Grage, who took over the program ahead of the 2016 season. “I said, ‘Look, if anybody is able to beat us doing us...then you just tip your hat and say (to them that they’re) better than us.’”

Grage is confident that the Bulldogs’ best chance at winning a title for the first time since 1988 is to stay true to themselves, regardless of opponent.

“Our guys have really bought into the idea that we’re very simple,” Grage said. “We try to stay sound. We focus a lot on fundamentals — tackling, blocking and ball security — and then just let our guys be guys. We’ve got to do a good job of getting our dudes the ball.”

The Bulldogs (12-1) beat Rabun County 49-24 for the Wildcats’ most lopsided loss of the season. Malik Harper and Ricky Fulton each rushed for more than 100 yards, with Harper and Shannen White accounting for five rushing touchdowns. White threw for two more. The defense sacked Stockton seven times and hurried him 10 times.

It was an all-around dominant performance that they’ll look to repeat this week against the Callaway Cavaliers (10-2), who defeated the Bulldogs in last year’s quarterfinals, 34-21, on the way to their first state title.

Now the Cavs are trying to become the first 2A school in more than a decade to repeat as champions. The last team was the Buford Wolves, who won 2A in consecutive seasons from 2006-2010.

Grage’s mindset remains the same for a young, reloaded Cavs team that’s gotten better as the season’s grown, and that’s playing its best ball yet.

“They’re playing with a ton of confidence right now,” Grage said. “They’ve got good players all over the place. They’re very dynamic on defense with a lot of pressures and different looks, and then, offensively, they do a really good job finding their playmakers. We’ve taken the same idea as last week, where we had all the talk about the other team and their players. This week, a lot of people around here are talking about revenge and things like that. Let the fans talk about that type of stuff. We’re going to continue to put the blinders on, focus on what we’re doing, play fast and just worry about Thomasville.

“If we put our best forward, play good Thomasville football and play sound in all three phases, then we feel good about our chances. If someone is able to beat us at our best, you tip your hat to them. But we know it’s going to be another war.”

Last year’s Bulldogs-Cavs game was played at Callaway. However the Bulldogs host this year as Region 1 champions. The Cavs finished second in Region 5, and playing on the road has worked out well for them in the postseason thus far. They’ve won at No. 3, undefeated Bleckley County and South Atlanta, champions of Region 6.

Cavs coach Pete Wiggins said that he’s just glad his team has advanced far enough to pull within striking distance of another championship. He also recognizes the challenge the Bulldogs present.

“They’ve got a lot of very talented players on both sides of the ball,” Wiggins said. “They’ve got a lot of speed and size, and they’ve been here before. This is a team with a lot of tradition and a lot of expectations. That’s a big deal in the playoffs, is having experience. Looking at their schedule, it was difficult, and they’ve been in a lot of big games against really good teams throughout the season. It’s a great football team and we’re going to be on the road, and it’s a big challenge for us.

“All we can ask for is an opportunity and we’ve got it. Our kids are excited. I think we’ve matured as the season’s gone on and we’ve gotten better...hopefully we can go out and things will go our way in Thomasville Friday night.”

Maxwell’s Projections has Thomasville as 19-point favorites.

GHSF Daily named the Bulldogs its team of the week for their quarterfinals win over Rabun County, and to read about that, and for more 2A semifinals coverage, check out Thursday’s GHSF Daily newsletter and subscribe for free.

The Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane (11-2) are trying to reach the championship for a second year in a row and fourth time since 2015. They’ll have to beat the 11-2 Swainsboro Tigers in what will be their third straight road playoff game after wins at Fannin County in Round 2 and undefeated, No. 4 Putnam County last week.

The Cane settled for Region 1′s No. 2 seed following their 15-8 loss to Thomasville on Oct. 22. This will be the Cane’s shortest of the road trips but it’s still long at two hours. They drove five-and-a-half hours to Blue Ridge, then two-and-a-half hours to Eatonton.

The Cane and Tigers are evenly matched, both with fast, physical defenses, and offenses that lean heavily on the run.

Cane coach Tucker Pruitt sees a lot of his team in the Tigers.

“They look a lot like us,” Pruitt said. “They’re really good on defense and don’t have to score a ton of points because they hold (their opponents) to a low (score). On offense, they’ve got some weapons too. (Sophomore Demello Jones) is really good — he can go to the house at any time — and then everything kind of runs through (quarterback Ty Adams). They do a lot of power read, speed sweep and guard-tackle counter and getting those guys in space, and their offensive line gets after it.”

The Tigers got this far by trying something new in the quarterfinals against Northeast — making a field goal. They’d struggled in the kicking game all season and opted to only use the field goal unit for extra point attempts. However, when the Tigers needed three points the most, in double-overtime with the score tied at 9, they got a 32-yarder from Daron Coleman, his first of the season.

Tigers coach Scott Roberts said Coleman drilled the ball through the middle of the uprights, leaving no doubt.

“It probably would have been good from 45,” Roberts said.

The Tigers beat Northeast 12-9, with both teams scoring on a safety and touchdown to force overtime. The kicking game might be of need again for the Tigers this week in what could be another low-scoring, defensive battle.

Roberts agrees with Pruitt that both teams are similar.

“They’re going to to control the football to try to shorten the game, and they play great defense,” Roberts said. “It’s a lot like what we try to do. We run the football and try to play good defense. And they’re very good on special teams. They’ve blocked a lot of punts and field goals this year.”

Maxwell’s Projections pegs the Cane as 5-point favorites.

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