Class 5A: A look at the seven remaining non-ranked playoff teams

High school football

Credit: For the AJC

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High school football

Credit: For the AJC

Only one ranked team bit the dust in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs, but that only happened because two ranked teams were matched against each other.

This week, under rather odd circumstances, the second-round matches features four games that pit ranked teams against each other. That leaves four other second-game games that include only one ranked team, meaning three of the games have a pair of unranked opponents squaring off.

That also means at least three unranked teams will reach the Elite Eight, leaving the door open for Cinderella to reach the championship game.

Here’s a look at the seven non-ranked teams who are among the Sweet 16:

Clarke Central (9-2): The Gladiators had to deal with COVID issues and a killer opening schedule while rebuilding its offense. There aren’t many tougher ways to start a season than with Buford and Oconee County. Since then coach David Perno’s team has won nine straight, claimed its third straight Region 8 championship, and scored fewer than 27 points only once. The defense? It has become the outstanding unit that was expected.

Eastside (8-3): The Eagles were basically playing an elimination game each week after they dropped back-to-back Region 8 games to Apalachee and Clarke Central. They finished with four straight victories, secured the No. 3 seed, and survived a first-round road playoff game to reach the Sweet 16.

Harris County (7-4): The Tigers lost three of their first four games, but reeled off a five-game winning streak before losing to Whitewater, which doomed them to third place in Region 2. It is the fifth straight year they’ve made the playoffs, but they haven’t made it to the second round since 2014, when Harris won its last region title.

Jones County (9-2): The champions from Region 4 have won eight straight games since it was shocked by Veterans in overtime. The Greyhounds began the season ranked No. 7, but were knocked off in the opener by Northeast Macon and never got a chance to re-enter the rankings. Coach Mike Chastain’s team is one of the most explosive offensive teams still playing.

Lithia Springs (5-6): The Lions played the toughest non-region schedule in Region 6, beating Southwest DeKalb but losing to Douglas County, Alexander, Class 6A No. 2 Lee County and South Forsyth. The Lions, who have made the playoffs for three straight years, beat Apalachee in the first round to give the school its first victory in the state playoffs. (Lithia’s other postseason win came in the region playoffs 1981, when only one team advanced to the state tournament.)

Starr’s Mill (8-3): The run-run-run Panthers were ranked as high as No. 7 when they were upset by Union Grove. Coach Chad Phillips’ team had its streak of five straight region championships broken when they lost to Whitewater, but they had impressive wins over Newnan, Harris County and Griffin to finish second in Region 2.

Villa Rica (8-2): The Wildcats have won eight in a row since they opened the season by losing their first two games. Coach Tim Barron’s team survived a gut-check against Lithia Springs, then went on the road to beat New Manchester for the Region 6 title, its first championship since 1998. The Tigers reached the Elite Eight that year before losing to Early County.

Friday’s Schedule: Creekside at St. Pius, Lithia Springs at Whitewater, Warner Robins at Cartersville, Eastside at Jones County, Harris County at Villa Rica, Blessed Trinity at Woodward Academy, Starr’s Mill at Clarke Central, Calhoun at Ware County.

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