GHSA semifinals preview: It’s down to 32 teams

Grayson’s Amari Alston (12) 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’s Amari Alston (12) 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)

Only 32 of the GHSA’s 412 football teams are still standing, and they’ll be cut in half Friday night with 16 semifinals games that will send winners to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the championships.

Those still standing include Class A upstarts Bryan County and Telfair County along with Perry and Stockbridge, each gunning to make the finals for the first time.

It’s been more than 20 years since Cook (1949), Douglas County (1964), Woodward Academy (1980), Manchester (1997) or Thomas County Central (2002) played for a championship, and each is now one victory away.

Reigning champions Benedictine, Prince Avenue Christian and Bowdon want to get back to defend their titles, while 2022 runners-up Cedar Grove, Fitzgerald, Swainsboro and Schley County can earn shots at redemption.

Here’s a closer look at the teams and games that make up Friday night’s final fours.

How they got here: Camden County’s 39-20 victory over 16-point favorite Mill Creek was the quarterfinals’ biggest upset. Mill Creek joined Buford, Carrollton and Colquitt County as teams with top-25 national rankings that were eliminated last week. Two quarterfinals were won on the final play. Drew Reneau’s 31-yard field goal lifted Thomas County Central to a 19-16 victory over Rome, and Logan Inagawa’s 41-yard Hail Mary pass to Lincoln DeLaere gave Starr’s Mill a 35-29 victory over Central-Carrollton. Manchester scored two touchdowns and recovered an onside kick in the final three minutes to defeat Clinch County 21-17.

Newcomers: Playing in their first semifinals will be Telfair County, which started football in 1967, and Bryan County, which started in 1976. Perry has gone the most seasons without a semifinals appearance, the last in 1959.

Regulars: Marist has played in 22 semifinals, the most of the 32 teams. Benedictine, Fitzgerald and Prince Avenue Christian are the only schools that have made the semifinals each season this decade (2020-23).

Teams to beat: The No. 1-ranked teams remaining are Coffee (5A), Benedictine (4A), Calvary Day (3A), Prince Avenue Christian (A Division I) and Schley County (A Division II). Walton, at No. 2 the highest-ranked remaining team in 7A, has never won a state title. Thomas Central, at No. 2 the highest-ranked team in 6A, hasn’t won since 1997.

Underdogs: Brooks County, Telfair County and Camden County are the only unranked teams remaining. Only Camden County hasn’t been ranked at any point during the season.

Best semifinal: No. 1 Calvary Day of 3A has never won a state title, and the Cavaliers must get through No. 2 Cedar Grove, a four-time former champion, on the road at DeKalb County’s Godfrey Stadium.

Next best: No. 1 Coffee of 5A has never won a state title, and the Trojans travel to No. 4 Cartersville, a program that moved ahead of Buford last week for a state-leading 126 victories during the past 10 seasons.

Rematch: Schley County is playing at Bowdon in a rematch of the 2022 Class A Division II final that Bowdon won 39-31. Schley County is ranked No. 1 and a five-point favorite this time.

Hardest to pick: Creekside is a one-point favorite over Jefferson in Class 5A, according to the computer Maxwell Ratings. The biggest underdog is Camden County, which plays at 16-point favorite Walton.

Road trips: Camden County is driving 354 miles to Walton in Cobb County. The Wildcats will have traveled 2,744 miles in four playoff rounds. That’s about the distance from Camden County’s Cumberland Island to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Eight teams are traveling more than 200 miles. They are Bryan County (200), Stockbridge (234), Coffee (238), Savannah Christian (240), Thomas Central (240), Calvary Day (246) and Cook (252). On the other hand, it’s 25 miles from Woodward Academy to Douglas County.

Regionalism: All sections of the state are represented. There are five coastal Georgia teams. They are Bryan County, Camden County and Savannah private schools Benedictine, Calvary Day and Savannah Christian. The only school system with multiple teams is Fulton (Milton, Creekside). Gwinnett has only one team (Grayson) for the second year in a row after qualifying six apiece in 2019 and 2020.

QB spotlight: The state’s most famous quarterbacks, Carrollton’s Ju Ju Lewis, Buford’s Dylan Railoa and Hughes’ Air Noland, are out, but there’s more where they came from. The year of the quarterback lives on with Walton’s Jeremy Hecklinski (Wake Forest), Milton’s Luke Nickel (Miami), Benedictine’s Luke Kromenhoek (Florida State), Calvary Day’s Jake Merklinger (Tennessee), Cedar Grove’s E.J. Colson (Central Florida) and Prince Avenue Christian’s Aaron Philo (Georgia Tech).

Next: Friday’s winners will get extra rest before the finals, which will be played Dec. 11-13 (Monday-Wednesday) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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