Class A Blog: Putting a bow on the 2020 football season

The season that almost wasn’t is done. Before we switch to basketball this week, we take a look back at the most improbably season in the history of Georgia high school football.

Hail to the schools

Kudos to the thousands of people who made the 2020 season, even with all of its hiccups, possible. That includes all the coaches and their staffs, players, cheerleaders, band members, trainers and team managers, parents, boosters, sponsors and other supporters, officials and Georgia High Schools Association leadership – including executive director Dr. James Hines, associate director Kevin Giddens, who oversees football, and the members of the executive committee.

They all adjusted and persevered in the face of an unprecedented obstacle and finished the season with thrilling playoff games and a top-notch, three-day championship event at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium. Congratulations to all!

Hail to the champs

Congrats to the state champions as well: Irwin County on the public side and Prince Avenue Christian on the private side, Pinecrest Academy in 8-man football and Calvary Day in Class A-5A flag football.

In the first season of flag football being a varsity sport for girls, the Cavaliers shut out another Class A team, Portal, 6-0, in the Class A-5A final. Calvary Day advanced through the playoffs with wins over Class 5A Stockbridge in Round One (19-6), Class 4A Carver-Columbus in Round Two (9-0), Class 5A Harris County in the quarterfinals (6-0), and Class 5A Northside-Columbus in the semifinals (14-12).

Pinecrest won the school’s first football state title competing in the Georgia Association of Private and Parochial Schools (GAPPS) Division II 8-man league, defeating Lanier Christian Academy of Flower Branch, 44-18, in the final. Pinecrest began competing in football in the Georgia Independent Schools Association (GISA) in 2004 before moving into the GHSA in 2009. First-year head coach Shawn Coury opted to have his team compete in an 8-man league this season after the Paladins’ roster had been reduced to less than 20 players due to fears of the spread of COVID-19 and a lack of interest after going a combined 7-23 the last three seasons. The Paladins finished 9-2 and won a state title in their one and only season competing in 8-man football. The plan is to return to the GHSA next season playing a non-region schedule, before returning to region play in 2022.

For Irwin, it is the second state title in as many seasons as they defeated Brooks County, 27-19. The Indians finished 12-3, and even though they lost to region rival Clinch County during the regular season, they still won their fourth straight region championship, their sixth in the last seven seasons.

To win the title, Irwin not only overcame the impact of COVID-19, which took head coach Casey Soliday out for the first two games of the season (both loses to playoff teams from Class 2A – runner-up Fitzgerald and Cook, which was defeated in the first round), but this was also their first season since 2013 without Buddy Nobles on the sideline. The architect of the program’s recent success, Nobles passed away last January after battling cancer all season.

Afterward, Nobles said: “I’m so proud of these kids, this school and this community. And don’t think coach Nobles was not on our minds. A lot of the character of this team comes from him.”

On the private side, Prince Avenue completed one of the most dominant seasons in Class A history, en route to winning the first state title in the program’s 16 seasons. Other than an early season loss to Class 2A semifinalist Rabun County (38-31), the Wolverines finished 13-1, winning their games by an average score of 47-14.

Other than the 41-21 win over Trinity Christian in the finals, Prince Avenue vanquished two teams that had plagued them as of late – Athens Academy and five-time defending champion Eagle’s Landing Christian. The Wolverines had dropped a combined nine games in a row to both squads, having last defeated Region 8 rival Athens Academy in 2016 while going winless against ELCA in five tries. But Prince Avenue ended both droughts resoundingly, defeating Athens Academy 41-7 in the regular season and ELCA 38-0 in the quarterfinals.

When asked to point to one thing that made the difference this season, after advancing to the semifinals in four of the previous five seasons, and being knocked out of the playoffs in three of the last six, Wolverine head coach Greg Vandagriff said: “Confidence that we could play with ELCA. We were no longer just waiting to get beat by them.”

What to watch for in 2021

Will Irwin County be able to repeat, after losing dynamic two-way playmakers Gabriel and Garland Benyard (signed with Kennesaw State) and Kam Ward (undecided)? … Trinity Christian advanced to the finals in just the third season for the Lions competing in the GHSA. With nearly everyone returning next season, including the QB-WR tandem of twin brothers David and Joshua Dallas, Trinity will look to make another deep run in the playoffs… After capping off one of the most storied high school careers ever in Georgia high school football with a state title, Prince Avenue QB Brock Vandagriff will compete for the starting job at Georgia in the fall. In fact, he will be enrolling this week to begin classes early. The task of filling his shoes at Prince Avenue next season appears to belong to freshman Aaron Philo. He appeared in five games this season, completing nine of his 13 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing seven times for 45 yards… After unceremonious exits from the playoffs this season, look for ELCA (knocked out in the quarterfinals by Prince Avenue, 38-0), Athens Academy (knocked out in Round Two by Fellowship Christian, 49-14), and Fellowship Christian (knocked out in the quarterfinals by Trinity Christian, 41-27) to rebound in 2021… And finally, pay attention to these teams next season: Commerce (the Tigers gave Irwin County its toughest game in the playoffs, losing 25-21) and Wilcox County (the Patriots held Irwin County to its lowest offensive output in the playoffs, losing 14-0).