Class 5A blog: No. 1-ranked Ware County begins quest for first state title

Credit: For the AJC

Credit: For the AJC

The Ware County Gators have been ranked No. 1 in the state since the calendar flipped to October. Now coach Jason Strickland’s team begins the quest to bring a championship back to the swamp.

Ware County (9-0) starts its journey against Jones County (6-4), perhaps the best fourth-seeded team in the Class 5A playoffs. The Greyhounds have endured an injury-riddled season and were ranked as high as seventh in the state three weeks ago.

Ware County has not missed a beat under first-year quarterback Nikao Smith, who replaced three-year starter Thomas Castellanos, now at Central Florida. Smith’s positive voice in the locker room has been valuable and his on-field results are outstanding: 1,750 yards passing with 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions. His favorite targets are Jarvis Hayes (34 catches, 20.6-yard average, 11 TDs), Brandon Washington (25 catches, 12.6 yards) and D.J. Loriston (16 catches, 16.9 yards, three touchdowns).

Smith can’t run in like Castellanos – but few can. He relies on junior Dae’jeaun Dennis (773 yards, nine TDs) and sophomore R.J. Boyd (450 yards, six TDs) to move the ball on the ground.

Ware County averages nearly 36 yards per game and the defense has been equally effective. Over the last four weeks, the Gators have surrendered only 13 points and have two shutouts.

Jones County was upset by Ola in midseason and lost to Warner Robins in Week 9. The Greyhounds had to beat Union Grove in the season finale just to claim the No. 4 seed in Region 2.

Jones County always has offensive weapons and this year is no exception. Five-star junior Zion Ragins may be the fastest player in the state. He has 40 catches for 513 yards and three touchdowns. Javious Bond, who missed five games with an injury, has run for 368 yards and caught 11 passes for 108 yards and two TDs. First-year quarterback Judd Anderson has thrown for 1,537 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The winner advances to play the McIntosh-Chamblee winner.

Five other top games to watch on Saturday:

McIntosh (5-5) at Chamblee (7-2) at North DeKalb Stadium: Two talented quarterbacks will display their skills in this interesting first-round game.

Chamblee’s Fabian Walker has thrown for 1,820 yards and 22 touchdowns and run for 424 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has moved up to No. 5 on DeKalb’s all-time passing list with 5,334 yards and 63 touchdowns.

McIntosh’s Tate Morris has thrown for Class 5A best 2,873 yards and 22 touchdowns and has run for 939 yards and three touchdowns. He threw a touchdown pass to Nick Glozier late in the fourth quarter last week to secure the 21-17 win over Harris County that gave the Chiefs the No. 2 spot in Region 3.

Dalton (5-5) at No. 10 Loganville (9-1): Loganville must find a way to slow Dalton’s Tyson Greenwade, who led all runners in Class 5 with 1,839 yards – five more than Malachi Hosley of Northside Columbus. Loganville would set a school record for wins with a victory. The Red Devils are led by Solomon Leslie (1,382 yards, 15 TDs rushing) and quarterback Jack Crowe, who has thrown for 1,203 yards and 16 touchdowns. Winner gets the Creekside-Greater Atlanta Christian winner.

No. 3 Cartersville (9-1) at Clarke Central (5-5): The Purple Hurricanes had last week to rest up. Running back Malachi Jeffries ran for 227 yards and two touchdowns in the season-finale win against Dalton that secured the No. 2 seed in Region 7. Clarke Central quarterback Lucien Anderson III has come up big all year, throwing for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns and running for 676 yards and 11 touchdowns. Last week tight end Jamarion Davis caught five passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the 37-36 must-win game against Winder-Barrow. Winner gets the Maynard Jackson-Cambridge winner.

Centennial (5-5) at Mays (6-4): This could be a high-scoring shootout. Mays quarterback Saulamon Evans threw three touchdown passes and ran for two others in last weeks’ 66-42 win over Lithia Springs that elevated the Raiders to the No. 2 seed in Region 5. The Raiders have found their stride on offense, scoring 216 points over the last four weeks. Centennial broke through to take the No. 3 seed in Region and have scored 38-plus points in four of its last five games. Johnsley Barbas, a Memphis commit, starts at defensive back, running back and punts, and four-star tackle Daniel Calhoun already has 25 college offers. Winner gets the Cass-Jefferson winner.

Lithia Springs (6-4) at Kell (9-1): The spotlight falls on two top quarterbacks. Lithia Springs senior Jai’Que Hart has thrown for 2,818 yards and 27 touchdowns. Kell junior Bryce Clavon has thrown for 2,368 yards and 22 touchdowns and run for 704 yards and 13 touchdowns. The difference may be the Kell defense, led by Joshua “Big Bear” Barker, who has 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. The winner gets Eastside-Calhoun winner.