State finals primer: 4 teams to defend championships; 4 looking for first titles

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Four defending champions and four teams that never have won state titles are among the 16 playing in the GHSA finals this week at Center Parc Stadium.

No real underdogs remain. Every finalist was ranked in the top five after the regular season except Warner Robins, which ironically is Class 5A’s two-time defending champion.

Here’s a closer look at the eight championship games and the flag football finals to be played Thursday through Saturday:

Newcomers: Playing in their first state finals are Mill Creek in Class 7A and Schley County in Class A Division II. Both schools opened early this century.

Seeking their first titles: In addition to Mill Creek and Schley County, teams playing for their first championships are Hughes in 6A and Ware County in 5A. Hughes opened in 2009. Ware County has been at it since 1958.

Defending champions: Returning 2021 winners are Warner Robins (Class 5A), Benedictine (4A), Cedar Grove (3A) and Fitzgerald (2A). Warner Robins, already one of only three schools in history to reach six consecutive finals, can become the 14th to win three in a row. The Demons are ranked No. 7 largely because of a 1-4 start, but they’ve won nine consecutive. Benedictine can win its fourth title in nine seasons. Cedar Grove can win its fifth in seven. Fitzgerald can win its second consecutive title after waiting 73 years (1948-2021) between its first two.

And still No. 1: No. 1-ranked teams are Hughes (6A), Ware County (5A), Cedartown (4A), Cedar Grove (3A), Fitzgerald (2A), Prince Avenue Christian (A Division I) and Bowdon (A Division II). Only Buford of 7A didn’t make it.

Best matchup: The most eagerly awaited probably is the 7A final between Mill Creek and Carrollton. This is the first final in the highest class for either. Mill Creek’s only loss was to Buford on Oct. 14. The Hawks have won seven consecutive games since, each finishing with running clocks. Carrollton has won seven state titles but all in classes 2A or A, and none since 1998. The unbeaten Trojans moved into the highest class for the first time this season and can become the first team outside of metro Atlanta and South Georgia to win the highest class since LaGrange in 1991.

Matchup of styles: No other final provides such a contrast in offensive philosophy as Prince Avenue Christian vs. Swainsboro in A Division I. Prince Avenue junior Aaron Philo last week became the first quarterback in state history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in two seasons. Meanwhile, Swainsboro didn’t complete a pass in the semifinals. Averaging 328.9 yards rushing per game, Swainsboro prefers to feed 1,000-yard rushers Demello Jones (1,247) and Qin Brown (1,142).

Battle of unbeatens: Finals between undefeated teams are Hughes vs. Gainesville in 6A and Swainsboro vs. Prince Avenue Christian in A Division I. Also undefeated are Carrollton, Ware County, Cedartown and Fitzgerald.

Most surprising: From a preseason perspective, undefeated Gainesville was the longest shot among those that made it. The Red Elephants were 5-5 last season and the only finalist that didn’t make the 2021 playoffs, but first-year coach Josh Niblett came highly touted with his seven state titles in Alabama. Carrollton and Thomson also were not ranked in preseason.

Record-setting: Hughes, which plays Gainesville in the 6A final, needs two points to break the state record for points in a season set by Rome with 758 in 2017. Hughes can become the first team in GHSA history to score at least 40 points in every game and the second, after Valdosta in 1971, to beat every opponent by more than 20 points.

New this year: The GHSA’s new Class A Division II is a blessing for schools with about 400 students or fewer, and Bowdon and Schley County have cashed in. Schley County (pronounced “sly”) is a first-time finalist, and Bowdon is making its first appearance since 2001.

Intriguing players: Mill Creek safety Caleb Downs, who committed to Alabama, is the state’s highest-rated senior prospect. Carrollton quarterback Julian “Ju Ju” Lewis has thrown for 3,587 yards and 43 touchdowns, which are freshman state records. Warner Robins defensive tackle Vic Burley is a three-year starter on a two-time champion and an AJC Super 11 member. Cedartown running back/linebacker Harlem Diamond has 1,944 all-purpose yards and ranks second on his team in solo tackles. Some blue-chip recruits to watch are Bo Hughley (committed to Georgia) and Jelani Thurman (Clemson) of Hughes, Jamal Anderson (Clemson) of Mill Creek and Kayin Lee (Ohio State) of Cedar Grove.

Flag finals: Three flag football finals will be played Thursday. With 223 teams this season, an increase from 188 in 2021 and 91 in 2020, the sport is the GHSA’s fastest-growing. Playing for titles are Milton and Blessed Trinity in 7A, Central-Carroll and Lithia Springs in 5A/6A and Harris County and Southeast Bulloch in A/4A.

Is this the end? This is the third season to culminate with finals at Georgia State. GHSA executive director Robin Hines said in October that his association is negotiating with the Falcons to return the finals to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they were scheduled from 2017-18. Hines has not updated those plans.

TV/radio/stream: GPB Sports will televise and livestream all games. 680 The Fan and ESPN Atlanta will provide radio coverage.

Tickets: The GHSA encourages fans to buy tickets ($20) online through GoFan Digital. They can be bought by credit card at the gate. Parking is $25.

ExploreGame previews for the Georgia high school championship contests

Schedule:

Thursday

11 a.m. - Flag Class A/4A (Harris Co. vs. Southeast Bulloch)

12:45 p.m. - Flag Class 5A/6A (Central-Carroll vs. Lithia Springs)

2:30 p.m. - Flag Class 7A (Blessed Trinity vs. Milton)

5 p.m. - Class A Division II (Bowdon vs. Schley Co.)

8 p.m. - Class A Division I (Prince Avenue Christian vs. Swainsboro)

Friday

Noon - Class 2A (Fitzgerald vs. Thomson)

3:30 p.m. - Class 4A (Benedictine vs. Cedartown)

7 p.m. - Class 6A (Gainesville vs. Langston Hughes)

Saturday

Noon - Class 3A (Cedar Grove vs. Sandy Creek)

3:30 p.m. - Class 5A Ware Co. vs. Warner Robins)

7 p.m. - Class 7A (Carrollton vs. Mill Creek)