What it all means: High school football finals are set

 Walton’s Makari Bodiford (3) is tackled brought down by Camden County’s defense during the second half of a GHSA semifinal game Friday, December 1, 2023. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Walton’s Makari Bodiford (3) is tackled brought down by Camden County’s defense during the second half of a GHSA semifinal game Friday, December 1, 2023. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

The high school football state championships are set. The championship games will be played Dec. 11-13 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here is a breakdown of the semIfinals from Friday and what it all means:

Class 7A

*Milton 45, Grayson 35: Miami-committed QB Luke Nickel was 31-of-50 passing for 434 yards and four touchdowns. He had a pair of 100-yard receivers: C.J. Wiley (10-136-1) and Tristan Payne (8-148-2). Grayson got within 45-35 on John Cineas’ 99-yard kickoff return, but Milton recovered an onside kick and ran out the final 6:27, driving to the Grayson 3. Milton led in total yards 588-424. Grayson’s J.D. Davis passed for 317 yards, and Aiden Taylor had nine catches for 167 yards.

What it means: Milton, a champion in 2018, is in its third final in six seasons. Grayson’s bid for its first finals appearance since 2020 was ended. Milton’s victory over a Gwinnett County team, occurring minutes after Walton beat South Georgia’s Camden County, ensured the Milton-Walton final will be the first championship game in the highest classification without a Gwinnett or South Georgia team since 1985 (Clarke Central vs. Warner Robins).

*Walton 41, Camden County 25: Wake Forest-committed QB Jeremy Hecklinski was 16-of-23 passing for 317 yards and six touchdowns. Walton led 21-0 at halftime, then only 21-17 in the third quarter after Camden County returned an interception for a touchdown, but Hecklinski rebounded with TD passes on Walton’s next three possessions for a 41-17 lead. Hunter Teal had six receptions for 163 yards. Makari Bodiford rushed for 108 yards. Wendell Gregory had three tackles for losses. Walton held Camden to 207 rushing yards and 4-of-13 passing for 26 yards.

What it means: Walton is in the finals for the second time, first since its 2011 runner-up finish. Camden County, a No. 3 seed, was ousted after three straight road wins and 2,744 miles traveled.

Class 6A

*Thomas County Central 13, Marist 7: Thomas County Central took a 13-0 lead in the first half with 1-yard runs by Ezekial Bogan and Trey Brenton, the first after a 16-play, 80-yard drive, the second after the first of three lost Marist fumbles. Marist threatened twice in the second half. A missed field goal ended one, and the other reached Thomas Central’s 32-yard line in the final four minutes but ended in a lost fumble. Thomas Central outgained Marist 274-223. Brenton rushed for 195 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.

What it means: Thomas County Central is in its first championship game since 2002. The Yellow Jackets defeated a top-10 team on the road for the fifth time this season and broke Marist’s 14-game home playoff winning streak. Marist finished 12-2, having won 12 straight after its opening loss to Gainesville.

*Woodward Academy 24, Douglas County 21: Woodward trailed 14-0 in the first half. After three Hudson Hanges field goals got Woodward within 14-9, the game turned in the fourth quarter on freshman linebacker Amarri Irvin’s strip sack for a turnover at the Douglas County 27. Woodward scored on the next play on Landon Walker’s 27-yard pass to Ben Grice with 8:13 left. After Woodward made a fourth-and-2 stop near at midfield, Walker hit Grice with a 28-yard TD pass for a 24-14 lead with 3:34 remaining. Douglas County got within 24-21 with 2:37 left, but Woodward recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock. Landon was 15-of-22 passing for 152 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 61 yards.

What it means: Woodward Academy advanced to its first state final since its 1980 Class 3A championship season and ended Douglas County’s undefeated season and bid for its first finals appearance since 1964.

Class 5A

*Creekside 28, Jefferson 17: Creekside overcame a 14-0 first-half deficit, led 21-17 at halftime and took control on Vinson Berry’s 20-yard TD pass to Shane Kelley on the first play of the fourth quarter. Berry was 14-of-25 passing for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Kelley had eight receptions for 90 yards. Roderick McCrary rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Creekside forced three turnovers and held Jefferson to 204 total yards. Jefferson’s Sammy Brown, knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter, rushed for 134 in his final high school game and finished with 2,289 rushing yards for the season.

What it means: Creekside is in the finals for the second time, first since its 2013 5A championship. Jefferson finished 13-1.

*Coffee 33, Cartersville 18: Coffee scored on four consecutive possessions over the second and third quarters to build a 24-0 lead. Fred Brown rushed for 190 yards on 40 carries, and Maurice Hansley was 10-of-12 passing for 157 yards and a touchdown. Patrick McCall had six receptions for 92 yards. Cartersville’s Khristian Lando rushed for 153 yards, but Cartersville was 5-of-16 passing for 80 yards.

What it means: Coffee is in the finals for the second time, first since its 2017 runner-up team, and still chasing its first state championship. Cartersville finished 13-1.

Class 4A

*Perry 28, Starr’s Mill 24: Perry overcame deficits of 10-0 and 24-14 and scored the winning touchdown with 8:46 left on Colter Ginn’s 61-yard pass to Kory Pettigrew at the end of a 99-yard drive. Starr’s Mill had a first-and-goal at Perry’s 8-yard line in the final five minutes, but Tavares Simmons’ fourth-down tackle at the 5 ended the threat. Ginn was 20-of-31 passing for 382 yards and two touchdowns. Pettigrew (4-131-1) and Dakarai Anderson (8-166-1) each had more than 100 receiving yards. Ahmad Gordon rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

What it means: Perry, which started football in 1954, set a GHSA record for the most seasons (70) until its first advance to the state finals and won its third straight road game over a top-10 opponent in the playoffs. Starr’s Mill finished 10-4.

*Stockbridge 45, Benedictine 31: North Carolina State-committed RB Jayden “Duke” Scott rushed for 310 yards on 27 carries and scored on runs of 59, 90 and 55 yards. Benedictine led 10-7 in the first quarter but muffed a punt at the Stockbridge 20, setting up Stockbridge’s go-ahead touchdown. Benedictine later lost a fumble deep in Stockbridge territory, and Scott ran 90 yards for a 21-10 lead. Stockbridge led 24-10 at halftime, and Benedictine got no closer. Cobey Thompkins was 8-of-15 passing for 105 yards and rushed for 56 yards. Stockbridge held Benedictine to 60 rushing yards.

What it means: Stockbridge, which started football in 1964, advanced to its first state championship game, defeated a No. 1-ranked team from its classification for the first time and avenged a 34-14 loss in the 2022 quarterfinals. Stockbridge ended Benedictine’s 24-game winning streak and two-year reign as Class 4A champion.

Class 3A

*Cedar Grove 49, Calvary Day 42: Cedar Grove never trailed in a game that was scoreless for the first 18 minutes and then featured a 70-point second half, with 11 straight scoring drives and a 99-yard kickoff return. Cedar Grove ran out the final 1:35 after recovering an onside kick. Bo Walker rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. E.J. Colson passed for 141 yards and rushed for 122. Calvary Day’s Jake Merklinger was 20-of-29 passing for 252 yards and five touchdowns, but Calvary was held to 43 rushing yards.

What it means: Cedar Grove reached the Class 3A final for the sixth time in eight seasons in search of its fifth championship. The victory was Cedar Grove’s third straight against a No. 1-ranked team (2019 Peach County, 2016 Greater Atlanta Christian). Cedar Grove is the 10th GHSA team to reach a championship game with a .500 or worse regular-season record. Calvary Day finished 13-1 and remained 24-0 against non-Cedar Grove opponents the past two seasons.

*Savannah Christian 51, Carver (Columbus) 26: Savannah Christian led 30-6 at halftime. Zo Smalls rushed for 214 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. Blaise Thomas was 15-of-21 passing for 169 yards. David Bucey had nine receptions for 144 yards. Elijah Griffin, a five-star junior defensive lineman, returned an interception in the backfield 23 yards for a touchdown.

What it means: Savannah Christian reached its fourth GHSA final, first since its 2011 Class A championship. It was Savannah Christian’s third straight playoff road victory over a top-10 team. Carver finished 10-4.

Class 2A

*Pierce County 35, Fitzgerald 7: Caden McGatha rushed for 328 yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries and was 8-of-13 passing for 60 yards. McGatha ran or passed on 53 of Pierce County’s 55 plays. Pierce took a 21-0 lead in the third quarter, iced the game with two fourth-quarter touchdowns and outgained Fitzgerald 398-144.

What it means: Pierce County is in the finals for the second time, first since its 2020 Class 3A championship. Fitzgerald, the 2022 and 2020 runner-up and 2021 champion, will miss the finals for the first time this decade.

*Rockmart 34, Cook 24: Rockmart scored twice in the second quarter to lead 14-3 at halftime. Cook returned the kickoff to open the second half to make it 14-9 but got no closer. J.D. Davis rushed for 110 yards on 12 carries. Calliyon Thompson was 14-of-21 passing for 124 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 61 yards and a touchdown. Brent Washington scored three touchdowns.

What it means: Rockmart advanced to its sixth championship game, first since 2018, in pursuit of its first championship since 1950. Cook’s strange season, in which it forfeited five victories, then had them restored in time to claim the school’s first region title since 2014 and semifinal run since 2007, is over.

Class A Division I

*Swainsboro 24, Brooks County 17: With Brooks County leading 17-16, Swainsboro scored the winning touchdown on Demello Jones’ 61-yard run with 7:30 left. Schuyler Coney intercepted a pass into the end zone from the 35 with 34 seconds left to clinch the victory. Jones rushed for 134 yards on 17 carries. Jordon Williams rushed for 60 yards, and Qin Brown ran for 56. Swainsboro was 3-of-7 passing.

What it means: The victory set up a rematch of the 2022 final that Prince Avenue won 52-34. Swainsboro became the 12th team in history, first since 2017 Colquitt County, to win four consecutive playoff games away from home to reach a final. Brooks County’s six-game winning streak, which followed a 1-5 start against the classification’s toughest schedule, is over.

*Prince Avenue Christian 49, Bryan County 14: Aaron Philo was 23-of-31 passing for 490 yards and four touchdowns. Freshman Hudson Hill had five receptions for 168 yards and two touchdowns. C.J. Dockery had five catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. Kyler Giddens had 18 solo tackles.

What it means: Philo moved within 301 yards of breaking Trevor Lawrence’s career passing record of 13,902. Prince Avenue is in its fourth straight final, fifth overall, with championships in 2022 and 2020. Bryan County’s best season in its 47-year history, which netted a first region title and first semifinal appearance, came to an end.

Class A Division II

*Manchester 35, Telfair County 13: Manchester scored 35 unanswered points after Telfair County scored the opening touchdown. Qua’vion Cooper rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns on nine carries. C.J. Favors had 11 tackles and an interception. Justus Terry had 12 tackles and a sack.

What it means: Manchester is in the finals for the first time since its 1997 Class A title. It set up a rematch of Manchester’s 21-20 victory over Bowdon in the season opener. Telfair County finished 10-3 after its first semifinal appearance in history.

*Bowdon 35, Schley County 31: Bowdon won a game of seven lead changes. Kyler McGrinn threw a 35-yard TD pass to Devan Powell for a 35-31 lead with 5:00 left, and Powell intercepted Schley County on fourth-and-15 from the Bowdon 30 with 16 seconds left. Kyler McGrinn rushed for 118 yards on 28 carries and was 3-of-6 passing for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Jordan Beasley rushed for 140 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries. Kaiden Prothro had two receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown. Dylan McGrinn had 10 tackles.

What it means: Bowdon won a rematch of the 2022 final that Bowdon also won. It was Bowdon’s first victory over a No. 1-ranked team since the Red Devils beat Southeast Bulloch for the 1972 Class C championship. Schley County was denied in its bid for a first state title.

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