Class 5A: Ware County left indelible impression on championship season

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

They turned the lights on at Memorial Stadium in Waycross on Saturday to welcome home the newly crowned Class 5A champions. But there was really no need. Everyone from The Swamp was already in the stands at Center Parc Stadium to watch the biggest win in school history.

From the site of the old Atlanta Braves dugouts, all the way down the old third-base line, and stretching toward the old bullpen, there was a sea of loud green-clad Gator fans. They had made the longest trek of any school in the championship games and they weren’t going to miss the most important game of the year – not even the band, which got to the stadium despite bus trouble along the way.

The Gators gave them plenty of revelatory moments and opportunities to go a bit crazy during the 38-13 win over two-time defending champion Warner Robins.

“Right now it’s a big weight lifted because the community deserved this thing,” coach Jason Strickland said. “They have fought tooth-and-nail forever and ever and sever. They’ve been so close so many times.”

Ware County really expected to be in the championship game last year but got upset on its home turf by Calhoun. This year the Gators roared through the regular-season without a loss – even handing the state champions from Benedictine a defeat – and put a lot of old demons – and Demons – to rest.

The Gators began the season with a lot of questions, particularly on offense, where two-time all-state quarterback Thomas Castellanos graduated. But Niko Smith, a confident junior, stepped in and more than filled the role. Smith wasn’t the running threat, but was a better passer, as he showed in the final. Smith threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the year with 2,392 yards and 27 touchdowns.

The running game was excellent behind junior Dae’Jeaun Dennis, who had 95 yards and two touchdowns in the championship game, and sophomore Reggie Boyd, who had 132 yards in the finale. That gave Dennis 1,244 yards and 19 touchdowns and Boyd finished with 921 yards.

The heart of the Ware County defense was middle linebacker Trey Hargrove. He had eight tackles, three tackles for loss, and one sack against Warner Robins and will make some college program a fine player if given a chance. Jamario Barkley (nine tackles), Javontae Evans and K.J. Baker also came up big in the championship game.

Warner Robins deserves great credit for fighting back from a 1-4 start to claw its way back into the championship game for the sixth consecutive season. The Demons continued to play hard to the very end and showed the sort of tenacity and pride that has become a trademark of the program.

ExploreClick here to see an official box score.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Final official AJC rankings:

1. Ware County

2. Warner Robins

3. Dutchtown

4. Creekside

5. Cartersville

6. Coffee

7. Cambridge

8. Calhoun

9. Mays

10. Kell

Final unofficial next 10:

11. Jefferson

12. Loganville

13. Northside-Columbus

14. Decatur

15. Chamblee

16. Ola

17. Lithia Springs

18. Cass

19. Clarke Central

20. Eastside

Way too early preseason top 25 for 2023:

1. Ware County

2. Warner Robins

3. Dutchtown

4. Jefferson

5. Creekside

6. Cartersville

7. Jones County

8. Calhoun

9. Coffee

10. Kell

11. Cambridge

12. Mays

13. Decatur

14. Northside Columbus

15. Cass

16. Loganville

17. Eastside

18. Ola

19. Chamblee

20. Greater Atlanta Christian

21. Dalton

22. Clarke Central

23. Lithia Springs

24. Jenkins

25. Maynard Jackson