Class 6A blog: Newcomers Gainesville, Marist to face off in Week 1

Twenty-one teams moved into Class 6A from other classifications this year, and two of the biggest names in that group will go head to head Friday night when Gainesville travels to Marist for the teams’ season opener.

Gainesville moves back down from 7A after going 11-10 in two seasons and missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999, and they have a new coach that has created a buzz in northeast Georgia.

The Red Elephants hired former Hoover, Ala., coach Josh Niblett in the offseason to replace Heath Webb, who is now the head coach at Lumpkin County. Niblett, a seven-time state champion in Alabama, is best known for his 14 seasons at Hoover, winning titles with the Buccaneers in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Gainesville, a longtime power in Georgia, won a championship in 2012 in its first season in the second-highest classification and went 22-5 over the next two seasons. However, the program began to slide in 2015 and bottomed out with a 2-9 record in 2018.

Niblett expects to get the Gainesville program back to prominence quickly.

“These seniors are owed a lot,” Niblett told Bo Wilson of Access WDUN. “You hear people say, ‘Hey, it might be a year, two years, or three.’ I’m like, no, I’m not waiting two or three years. I’m not a patient person, and everyone in our program has a sense of urgency. As long as we keep that, we feel like we’ve got something to prove to not only us but everybody else.”

Marist made a two-classification jump (along with Thomas County Central) from 4A and enters the season ranked No. 6 in Class 6A. The War Eagles won the third state championship in program history in 2020 and reached the quarterfinals last year. They advanced to the quarterfinals or beyond in nine of the past 10 seasons.

Marist coach Alan Chadwick has a record of 409-75 in his 37 seasons at the school. The 409 victories rank second in state history behind Larry Campbell’s 477, and they are the most among active coaches, well ahead of Jackson County’s Rich McWhorter, who is second with 300 wins. Only 10 times has Chadwick failed to win at least 10 games, and his teams have never won fewer than seven in a season.

Gainesville will compete in Region 8 this season. Marist is a member of Region 4 along with archrival St. Pius, which moved up from 5A.

Here are five other notable games this weekend involving Class 6A schools. All games are Friday unless noted.

*Blessed Trinity at Calhoun: These programs spent the past two year together in Region 7-5A, with Calhoun winning two of three against the Titans in that stretch, including 24-7 in the semifinals last season. Now, Blessed Trinity, which was a 2A school just 11 years ago, moves up to 6A and must do so without AJC Super 11 running back Justice Haynes, who transferred to Buford.

*Lee County at Warner Robins: Second-ranked Lee County has lost just four regular-season games over the past five seasons, and none was more lopsided than its 56-30 loss last year to Warner Robins, which went on to win its second consecutive Class 5A title. WR Jevell Fugerson and RB Ousmane Kromah are the top players for Lee County, which is seeking its first championship since 2018.

*Woodward Academy at Trinity Christian: Fifth-ranked Woodward Academy averaged 10.5 victories per season in lower classes over the past eight years but is still trying to get back to the final for the first time since winning a state title in 1980. Trinity Christian, playing just its fifth season in the GHSA jumped all the way to 4A from A Private after winning the state championship last season.

*Hughes vs. Spartanburg, S.C. (Saturday at Milton): Hughes, coming off a 13-2 season and runner-up finish in 2021, is ranked No. 1 for the first time in its 14-year history and facing its first-ever game against an out-of-state opponent. Spartanburg is a seven-time state champion (most recently in 2014) and was a region champion and semifinalist in South Carolina’s highest class in 2021.

*Northside-Warner Robins vs. Jones County (Saturday at Mercer): Northside won a playoff game last year for the first time since 2018 and eventually reached the quarterfinals. Now, the Eagles are ranked No. 7 in 6A but facing a big opening-game test from a Jones County team that is No. 5 in Class 5A and has won three straight region titles. Jones County is 3-1 against Northside since 2014.