Previewing the semifinals: Coaches discuss opponents

Teams prepare to punch Benz ticket
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For the first time since 2019, semifinalists that advance will get to play in the best stadium in the world, The Benz. Maxwell’s projections have both winners of this fourth round advancing by single-digits. Three have made it this far within the past five years, and for one it’s been more than 15.

The matchups are the No. 10 Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane (10-3) at the No. 3 Pierce County Bears (12-1), and the No. 9 Cook Hornets (11-2) at the No. 6 Rockmart Yellow Jackets (11-2).

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Credit: via GHSA.net

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Credit: via GHSA.net

The Bears are eight-point favorites over the Cane. They’re in the semifinals for the third time in four years and fourth in the last six. They won the 3A championship during their 2020 run. The Cane are in the semis for a fourth consecutive year, winning their 2021 campaign. These teams split two games recently, with the Cane winning in 2020 and Pierce County getting redemption in 2021.

The Jackets are a five-point favorite over the Hornets. They last reached the semis in 2018, won and reached The Benz, so they’re the only remaining team that’s played at that stadium. Rockmart last won a state title in 1950. The Hornets’ last final four was in 2007. This is the sixth semis appearance for them since the program was founded in 1926, but they’ve only advanced once, in 1949, when they won their only championship. This is the first matchup between the Jackets and Hornets.

Following their quarterfinals wins, each coach was asked about their opponent. Here’s what they said.

Fitzgerald coach Tucker Pruitt on Pierce County

“They’re a great team. We played them in our non-region schedule in 2020 and 2021, and we split. When we beat them, they won state. When they beat us, we won state. Coach Ryan Herring does a great job there, and they’re kind of similar to us in that they run the ball and play good on defense. This should be a good, physical game. Our staff and our kids have to be prepared for a tough, hard-nosed band of football, because they’ve been dominant throughout this whole deal, the regular season and the playoffs. When we played at Pierce County in 2021, they have one of the best home-field advantage atmospheres I’ve been a part of, and I’ve coached in big games. They have a huge, supportive fan base and that place gets very loud. It will be a big challenge for us, against a good team that’s proven.”

Pierce County coach Ryan Herring on Fitzgerald

“They’re as solid as anyone. I don’t know their exact record over the past 10 years, but it’s unbelievable the number of playoff runs they have. Coach Tucker Pruitt has done a great job, particularly in managing games. They run heavy package stuff that grinds 3, 4 yards and keeps the offense on the field. When you’re that good at game control, maybe they win some games they shouldn’t because they know how to grind a game out. They’re ginormous on the offensive line. They have two guys over 300 pounds and the rest look at least 260, 270. They’re a power football team that grinds it out, then gets the ball in the end zone. Defensively, they’re sound, they play hard, and they’re just a well-coached team.”

Cook coach Byron Slack on Rockmart

“They’re a complete ball club. They’ve got a great offense, and they spread the ball around. They’re very physical on defense, and they have a linebacker (Brent Washington) who may have more offers than we’ve got kids. When I say they’re a complete ball club, I mean from all aspects. They’re coached very well and, just watching them, they’re sound everywhere. They’re athletic everywhere. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we have to play a great game, to have a shot.”

Rockmart coach Biff Parson on Cook

“When you’re in the final four, it’s all elite teams, so you have to have the same mindset and same preparation, with an understanding that it’s the small things that are going to matter. Home-field advantage (awarded by GHSA coin toss) will be a huge plus for us, but Cook is a good team. They’re athletic and hard-nosed, and it should be a real close ball game.”

All historical references courtesy of GHSFHA.org.

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