Class 5A blog: Top first-round games ... Apalachee’s long wait ends

Credit: For the AJC

Credit: For the AJC

The long wait is over for Apalachee, which is making its first trip to the playoffs in a dozen years.

The Wildcats (5-5) nailed down their postseason spot by beating Jackson County 34-28 in the final game of the regular season. Coach Tony Lotti, in his fourth season at Apalachee since a successful six-year stint at West Hall, could finally exhale.

“It was really nice after that game to sit there and watch the smiles on everyone’s faces,” Lotti said. “It had been a long time for them, so it was good to see them smile.”

Apalachee, the No. 2 seed from Region 8, will host Lithia Springs (4-6) on Friday in the first round of the playoffs. Lithia Springs is the No. 3 seed from Region 6.

Apalachee’s last winning season came in 2010, long before the stores began to pop up in Bethlehem or the bridge was built over U.S. Hwy. 29. The Wildcats went 6-4 that year, one season after going 12-1 and winning the school’s only region championship.

After going 8-22 over the last three seasons, the breakthrough came this season – but it wasn’t easy. Apalachee had issues with COVID contact tracing early in the season and didn’t start to play with a full roster until the middle of October.

The Wildcats played Region 8 champion Clarke Central to a close game into the fourth quarter, losing 31-17, and erased a 21-7 fourth quarter deficit to beat Eastside 22-21 in a game that had a great deal to do with making the playoffs.

“I’d say the turning point came sometime during the week between the Clarke game and the Eastside game,” Lotti said. “There was an understanding about keep playing and adversity, not flinching. All it takes sometimes is to make a big play and grab some momentum.”

Apalachee continues to be a running football team, operating behind a modified pistol wing-T formation. The underestimated Colby Sikes leads the attack with 1,068 yards and 10 touchdowns, with Prince Tate (645, five TDs) and Jeffrey Roberts (471 yards, five TDs) adding to the depth. The offensive line is anchored by tackle Elijah Harris, a three-year starter, and Ethan Padinor, who has flourished since being moved to guard.

“Our job is to put our kids in situations to be successful,” Lotti said.

Lithia Springs closed the season by winning three of its last four games, losing only a three-point heartbreaker to Villa Rica. The Lions hold a win over Region 5 No. 2 seed Southwest DeKalb from September.

Quarterback Jai’que Hart has thrown for 2,491 yards and 23 touchdowns, but has 11 interceptions and D Brownlee has rushed for 706 yards and three touchdowns, giving the Lions a solid one-two punch. Top targets include Devon Green (41 catches, six TDs), Ayden Smith (34 catches, eight TDs) and Davion Leslie Jr. (31 catches, five TDs).

Next for winner: Whitewater-Ola winner

Eastside at New Manchester: Eastside (7-3) is a run-oriented team led by Dallas Johnson, who has rushed for 1,517 yards and 17 touchdowns. New Manchester (5-4) operates behind quarterback B Jones, who has thrown for 981 yards and seven and run for 174 yards and three touchdowns. Both teams finished fast – Eastside won its last four games and New Manchester won four of its last five. Next for winner: Griffin-Jones County winner.

Griffin at Jones County: Jones County (8-2) won its second straight Region 4 title last week by beating Dutchtown. The Greyhounds are led by John Alan Richter, who has thrown for 2,381 yards and 25 touchdowns. Zion Ragins (44 catches, 800 yards, six TDs) and Javious Bond (36 catches, six TDs). Griffin (4-5) has a good offense, but trouble on defense. Bears quarterback Khalfani Harps has thrown for 1,440 yards and 14 touchdowns and run for 321 yards and six TDs. Next for winner: Eastside-New Manchester winner.

Coffee at Creekside: On paper this looks like the most compelling first round game and it is the only opener that features two ranked teams opposing each other. No. 7 Coffee (8-2) has lost only to Ware County and defending champion Warner Robins. The Trojans operate behind quarterback Justin Swords, who uses the multi-talented Maurice Turner (948 all-purpose yards) and running back Brady Skipper to get things started. No. 5 Creekside’s strength is on defense, where the Seminoles (8-2) had a six-game stretch that included three shutouts and three games allowing one score. Top defensive players are Vincent Hill (125 tackles), junior Javeon Miller (20 sacks) and Carlton Williams (11 sacks). Next for winner: Cass-St.Pius winner.

Union Grove at Starr’s Mill: The two teams met during the regular season, with Union Grove coming away with a 21-14 win in September. Running will be at premium for these two option teams. Union Grove (6-4) had 397 yards last week against Woodland – all of it on the ground. Dechavion Williams, who had 173 yards rushing, and Isaiah McBean, who had 93, lead the Wolverines. Starr’s Mill (7-3) has a deep stable of backs led by Brandon Mathis (879 yards, 11 TDs), Greigh Joseph (702 yards, 11 TDs), Andersen Cardoza (323 yards) and quarterback William Yarborough (327 yards, four TDs rushing). Next for winner: Clarke Central-Maynard Jackson winner.

Blessed Trinity vs. Southwest DeKalb (Hallford Stadium): Southwest DeKalb earned the No. 2 seed from Region 5 by beating Decatur during the regular season. The Panthers (6-4) have been banged up and have relied on their defense, which has produced a DeKalb County-best 33 takeaways (16 fumbles, 17 interceptions). Jamel Nelson leads the team with 65 total tackles, 14 for loss, and 5.5 sacks, and Chase Kerns has 12.5 sacks. Blessed Trinity (6-4) has lost to four ranked teams but beaten Class A power Eagle’s Landing Christian and Charlotte Catholic, one of the top schools in North Carolina. Running back Justice Haynes has rushed for 1,654 yards, despite missing three games, and makes the offense go. Next for winner: Veterans-Woodward Academy winner.

Other first-round games: Harris County at Dutchtown, Cass at No. 8 St. Pius, Ola at No. 10 Whitewater, Jonesboro at No. 4 Warner Robins, Lithonia at No. 1 Cartersville, Jackson County at Villa Rica, Veterans at No. 2 Woodward Academy, Maynard Jackson at Clarke Central, Decatur at No. 6 Calhoun, Banneker at No. 2 Ware County.