GHSA Football Playoffs Roundups: Semifinals

Grayson quarterback Jeff Davis (7) runs the ball during a GHSA High School Football game between the Grayson Rams and the North Paulding Wolfpack at Grayson High School in Loganville, GA., on Friday, November 17, 2023. (Photo/Jenn Finch)

Credit: Jenn FInch

Credit: Jenn FInch

Grayson quarterback Jeff Davis (7) runs the ball during a GHSA High School Football game between the Grayson Rams and the North Paulding Wolfpack at Grayson High School in Loganville, GA., on Friday, November 17, 2023. (Photo/Jenn Finch)

Second-ranked Cedar Grove will play in the Class 3A title game for the third-straight year — and the sixth time in eight seasons — following a 49-42 home victory in a back-and-forth battle with top-ranked Calvary Day.

The semifinals showdown may have begun with a scoreless opening quarter and a half, but it closed with a six-touchdown final frame, with a pair of back-to-back scores by Saints’ running back Bo Walker to end the first half and kick off the second half putting Cedar Grove out in front for good. Walker, a UGA-commit, finished the night with three total scores, while quarterback EJ Colson contributed a touchdown pass to Devin Carter and a pair of rushing scores — the second of which put the Saints ahead by 14 with just over two minutes left on the clock. Malachi Miller provided the remaining Cedar Grove touchdown on a 99-yard kickoff return early in the fourth.

For the Cavaliers, senior quarterback Jake Merklinger answered each of Cedar Grove’s second-half touchdowns with one of his own, ending the night with five touchdown passes and one touchdown run. Three of his scoring strikes went to Caden Arnold (35, 33 and 22 yards) and Michael Smith hauled in the other two, including one on 4th-and-6 that brought the score to 28-21 heading into the fourth.

The loss was the first of the season for Calvary Day, which was looking to make its first finals appearance since 2013. Meanwhile, the Saints carry a seven-game win streak into their championship matchup with Savannah Christian.

The AJC has writers at Camden County at Walton, Milton at Grayson and Thomas County Central at Marist. Follow the link to the scoreboard and brackets powered by Score Atlanta. Go here to see Todd Holcomb’s semifinals wrap or see the other recaps below.

Class 7A

Walton 41, Camden County 25

Milton 41, Grayson 35

Class 6A

Woodward Academy 24, Douglas County 21

The 10th-ranked War Eagles gave up a quick 14-0 lead to third-ranked Douglas County, then put together a 24-0 scoring run to secure the upset on the road and set up a showdown with Thomas County Central for the state title. Woodward Academy punted following both of the Tigers’ first-quarter touchdown runs, but the War Eagles finally got on the board with a field goal in the final minute of the opening half. Hudson Hanges sent another one through the uprights midway through the third, then hit his third made field goal of the night early in the fourth to bring the score to 14-9. After a War Eagles strip sack, quarterback Landon Walker found Ben Grice for a pair of touchdowns and a 24-14 lead before the Tigers added one last score with just over two minutes remaining.

Thomas County Central at Marist

Class 5A

Creekside 28, Jefferson 17

Coach Maurice Dixon has Creekside back in the state title game for the first time in a decade after a comeback win against visiting Jefferson. The third-ranked Dragons held a 14-0 advantage after Gavin Markey’s touchdown pass to Christopher Law late in the opening frame and Sammy Brown’s 58-yard rushing score on the first play of the second. Jefferson would fail to find the end zone again, however, adding only a field goal in the final seconds of the half to trail 21-17 after a trio of touchdowns from the Seminoles. Quarterback Vinson Berry put Creekside on the board with an 18-yarder to Dylan Vickerson, and both Roderick McCrary and Travis Terrell added rushing scores, the former of whom scored from 32 yards out and the latter of whom converted on fourth down for the touchdown. Jefferson lost Brown to an injury early in the final frame, and another Seminoles touchdown and a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions put the game away for Creekside, which will play Coffee for the title.

Coffee 33, Cartersville 18

Top-ranked Coffee will make its first finals appearance since 2017 following a largely comfortable 33-18 road win over fourth-ranked Cartersville, paying back the Purple Hurricanes for sending the Trojans packing in both 2020 and 2022. After an opening frame of stifling defense by both teams, Coffee scored the first 24 points of the game with a pair of Fred Brown touchdown runs bookending Jonah Saylor’s 27-yard field goal and Patrick McCall’s touchdown off a long screen pass. Cartersville quarterback Nate Russell finally put the ‘Canes on the board in the third quarter with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Brasfield, but Maurice Hansley answered for Coffee on the next drive with a rushing score for a 31-6 edge. Cartersville added back-to-back touchdowns on runs by Andrew Purdy and Richard Houston, but would fail to score again, and the game closed with an intentional grounding call resulting in a safety for the Trojans and a 33-18 final. Only second-ranked Creekside now stands between Coffee and its first title in program history.

Class 4A

Stockbridge 45, Benedictine 31

Stockbridge (12-2) held a three-touchdown lead for much of the second half, stopping Benedictine’s run at a third-straight state title and reaching the school’s first championship game. The Tigers got three touchdowns from running back Jayden “Duke” Scott, from 90, 60 and 59 yards to get the home win over the Cadets (13-1). Stockbridge, the No. 1 seed from Region 5, led 24-10 at halftime after Scott scored from 59 yards in the first quarter and 90 yards in the second quarter. The Tigers also got a 9-yard touchdown rush from quarterback Cobey Thompkins in the second quarter and got a 30-yard field goal from David Castillo as time expired in the first half. Benedictine’s first-half points came on a 44-yard Connor Ferguson field goal and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Luke Kromenhoek to Bubba Frazier, both in the first quarter. Stockbridge took a 31-10 lead in the third quarter when Thompkins rushed for a 23-yard touchdown. The Cadets answered with another scoring pass from Kromenhoek to Frazier to make it 31-17, this time from 50 yards, and then had a chance to cut into the lead further when a Stockbridge punt snap went over punter Jordan Wilson’s head, giving Benedictine the ball at the Stockbridge 8-yard line. But on third-and-goal from the 2, Bryce Baker fumbled just short of the goal line when he extended the ball, and Stockbridge’s Malik Caswell grabbed it in the end zone and fell forward back to the 2. Stockbridge then embarked on a methodical 98-yard drive that ended with three seconds remaining in the third quarter, when Thompkins rushed for a 4-yard score to extend the lead to 38-17. After a 2-yard Na’Seir Samuel touchdown for Benedictine with 2:59 remaining, Scott capped his phenomenal night with a 60-yard rush on the next possession to make it a 45-24 Tigers lead. Benedictine capped the scoring with a 9-yard rush from Frazier with under a minute to play. Benedictine, the top seed from Region 3, was going for its fifth state title overall, winning Class AA in 2014 and 2016 and Class AAAA each of the past two seasons.

Perry 28, Starr’s Mill 24

Visiting Perry (12-2) took the lead with 8:46 to play on a 61-yard touchdown pass from Colter Ginn to Kory Pettigrew. Starr’s Mill mounted a drive starting from its 30-yard line with a chance to regain the lead. But on a fourth-and-goal play from the Perry 10, Dorsey Benefield caught a pass from Logan Inagawa and was stopped 5 yards short of the end zone, tackled by Tavares Simmons, to turn the ball over on downs with four minutes to play. From there, Perry was able to hold onto the ball long enough to run out the clock, reaching the program’s first state title game. Starr’s Mill (10-4) held a 10-0 lead in the first quarter after Benefield scored on a 1-yard run and Hunter Meeks made a 21-yard field goal. Benefield, however, missed a significant portion of the middle of the game due to injury. Perry scored its first touchdown in the second quarter on a 1-yard Ahmad Gordon touchdown run and trailed 10-7 at halftime. Each team scored two touchdowns in the third quarter, leaving Starr’s Mill with a 24-21 lead after the third. Perry took a 14-10 lead after a 4-yard Gordon rush, his 31st touchdown of the year, and Starr’s Mill answered with an 18-yard scoring pass from Inagawa to Andersen Cardoza. Starr’s Mill extended its lead to 24-14 after a 4-yard rush from Benefield on a direct snap, his 19th touchdown of the season. Perry answered with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Ginn to Dakarai Anderson, who caught a 46-yard pass from Ginn earlier in the drive. Perry, the No. 2 seed from Region 2, denied Starr’s Mill, the top seed from Region 4, a second title-game berth (Starr’s Mill finished runner-up in 2010).

Class 3A

Cedar Grove 49, Calvary Day 42 (lead game)

Savannah Christian 51, Carver-Columbus 26

Savannah Christian led 17-0 after the first quarter and 30-6 at the half in a romp of host Carver-Columbus to earn a championship berth against state runner-up Cedar Grove. Zo Smalls scored on runs of 64, 15, and one yard to lead the Raiders. Kenry Wall added a touchdown seven-yard touchdown run and returned an interception 75 yards for a touchdown. Elijah Griffin added to the defensive effort, returning an interception 40 yards for a touchdown. Blaise Thomas passed 13 yards to Logan Brooking to cap scoring for the Raiders. Ethan Byrd kicked a 26-yard field goal and converted six point-after tries.

Class 2A

Pierce County 35, Fitzgerald 7

Host Pierce County got all five of its touchdowns on runs by quarterback Caden McGatha, who also rushed for five scores last week in the quarterfinals, to defeat Fitzgerald at home and reach the program’s second-ever championship game, having won the state Class AAA title in 2020. The Bears (13-1) led Fitzgerald (10-4) 21-0 late into the third quarter before the Purple Hurricanes scored their lone touchdown, and McGatha scored twice more in the fourth quarter to put the game away. Pierce County, the No. 1 seed from Region 3, led 14-0 at halftime after a McGatha 5-yard touchdown rush at the 2:20 mark of the first quarter and a McGatha 1-yard scoring run with 2:43 remaining in the first half. McGatha rushed for another 5-yard touchdown with 3:49 remaining in the third quarter, and Fitzgerald, the No. 2 seed from Region 1, answered in less than two minutes on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Wilson Davis to Calvin Tillman Jr. on a fourth-and-8 play with 1:57 left in the third. McGatha sealed the win in the fourth quarter with a 4-yard touchdown run with 9:54 left and a 2-yard rush with 7:03 remaining. On the play before the final touchdown, McGatha had a 65-yard rush down to the Fitzgerald 2. Fitzgerald’s season ends before the Purple Hurricanes could compete for their third state title in program history.

Rockmart 34, Cook 24

Brent Washington rushed for three touchdowns, bringing his season total to 18, for Rockmart as the Yellow Jackets defeated Cook at home to advance to the Class AA state championship game. Rockmart (12-2), the No. 1 seed from Region 7, reached the sixth state title game in program history with a chance to win its second championship (1950). Leading just 14-9 late in the third quarter, Rockmart put the game away with two touchdowns late in the period. Washington rushed for his second score on a fourth-and-1 play from 43 yards out to make it a 21-9 Rockmart lead, and then Calliyon Thompson hit Tristan Anderson for a 21-yard score to take a 28-9 advantage. Cook scored twice in the fourth quarter, first on a 36-yard pass from Drew Folsom to Ny’Shaun Wallace to make it 28-16 and the second on a 14-yard Keshun McKever touchdown run (and two-point-conversion pass from Folsom to Jacarre Johnson) with under a minute to play, but Washington’s third touchdown, a 1-yard rush, put Rockmart ahead 34-16 and kept the Hornets (11-3) at bay. Washington also recovered a fumble on defense for the Yellow Jackets. Cook held a 3-0 lead in the first quarter after a 38-yard field goal from Brooks Moore, but Rockmart answered on the next possession with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to Jake Bailey to take a 6-3 lead late in the first. The drive was set up by a kickoff return by Tristan Anderson to the Rockmart 47-yard line and a 31-yard run by J.D. Davis to the Cook 14. In the second quarter, Washington scored his first touchdown on a 1-yard run and then rushed for the two-point conversion, both off direct snaps. Rockmart’s second scoring drive was extended when Cook was called for encroachment on a fourth-and-2 play from the Cook 20-yard line. Cook pulled to 14-9 when Johnson took the second half’s opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. Cook, the top seed from Region 1, was denied a chance to play for a shot at the school’s second state championship (1949).

Class A Division I

Prince Avenue Christian 49, Bryan County 14

The all-time state passing record is in serious jeopardy after Aaron Philo passed for nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for one touchdown to lead defending-champion Pierce County back to the state championship game. Although the total might change once the Wolverines release their confirmed stats, Philo passed for 477 yards according to Oconee Enterprise Sports to leave him trailing Trevor Lawrence (13,902 yards) by just 313 yards. Hudson Hill caught two touchdown passes while CJ Dockery and Nick Hurley caught one touchdown pass each. Connor Causby scored on two runs for the Wolverines.

Swainsboro 24, Brooks County 17

Swainsboro is back in the championship for the second season in a row and the third time overall after moving past Brooks County. Leading 8-7, Jordan Williams scored on an eight-yard run with eight minutes left in the first half. Kason Edenfield caught the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt to extend the lead to 16-7. Swainsboro trailed 17-16 after a field goal from Brooks County but scored the go-ahead, game-winning touchdown with 7:30 left in the game.

Class A Division II

Manchester 35, Telfair County 13

Manchester is in the state championship game for the fourth time in program history and first time since its 1997 state championship after moving past Telfair County. Trailing 7-0, Qua Cooper scored on a 28-yard run but the failed point-after try made it a 7-6 game. The Blue Devils scored on a run early in the second quarter and converted the 2-point conversion to lead 14-7. Just before halftime, Manchester scored on a 3-yard run to extend the lead. With five minutes left in the third quarter, Manchester took the 28-7 lead on a 67-yard run. The Blue Devils capped scoring on a run with 10 minutes left in the game.

Bowdon 35, Schley County 31

Defending-champion Bowdon defeated Schley County in last year’s championship game and after outlasting top-ranked Schley County in the semifinals, the Red Devils are back in the finals for the sixth time in program history. Trailing 31-28 with six minutes left in the game, quarterback Kyler McGrinn passed 30 yards to Devan Powell for a touchdown to put the Red Devils up for good. In the semifinals, Schley led early on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Jay Kanazawa to Jeremiah Rogers. Jordan Beasley scored on a six-yard run but the ensuing miss on the point-after try left Bowdon trailing. Beasley’s five-yard run with 10 minutes left in the second quarter and the ensuing 2-point conversion run from McGrinn gave Bowdon the 14-7 lead. Schley tied the game on an eight-yard run from Zayden Walker with six minutes left in the first half and took the lead on a 20-yard field goal from Austin Cox. McGrinn passed to Kaiden Prothro on a 75-yard touchdown to regain the lead. Schley retook the lead 24-21 on a five-yard run from Walker with four minutes left in the third quarter. Beasley’s 55-yard touchdown run put Bowdon back on top 28-24 but again Walker responded on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter to put Schley back on top. Bowdon is looking for the program’s fourth title.

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