Semifinals primer: Gwinnett has six teams still standing

GAC players from left to right; Addison Nichols (72), Gannon Hearts (20), Luke Hicks (7), and Bobby Kincade (77) run onto the field before their game against Lovett at Greater Atlanta Christian Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 in Norcross. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

GAC players from left to right; Addison Nichols (72), Gannon Hearts (20), Luke Hicks (7), and Bobby Kincade (77) run onto the field before their game against Lovett at Greater Atlanta Christian Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 in Norcross. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Just when it seems other metro Atlanta counties are catching up, Gwinnett County is reminding its neighbors where it stands on the Georgia high school football food chain.

A record six Gwinnett teams are in the high school football semifinals, which will be played at 16 venues across the state Friday night.

’'It says a lot about the players in Gwinnett and the talent pool that’s been here for a long time and the quality of the coaches and how they care about their players and what they do to help them get to the next level,’' said Norcross coach Keith Maloof, whose team will play No. 1-ranked Grayson in an all-Gwinnett Class 7A semifinal between undefeated teams.

Three of those Gwinnett teams are in the highest classification as Collins Hill, playing at home against Lowndes, joins Norcross and Grayson in the 7A final four. Buford in 6A, Greater Atlanta Christian in 3A and Wesleyan in 1A Private also represent Gwinnett.

From nearly 25 years, every unshared state championship in the highest class went to Gwinnett or a South Georgia school such as Lowndes, but Milton of Fulton County in 2018 and Marietta from Cobb in 2019 broke the chain.

This season, the only non-Gwinnett teams from metro Atlanta still playing in any class are Westlake from Fulton County in Class 6A, Marist from DeKalb in 4A and Trinity Christian of Coweta in Class 1A Private.

Meanwhile in Gwinnett, three of the 16 semifinals games will be played within a three-mile radius of downtown Norcross. Those are Grayson at Norcross, Oconee County at GAC and Prince Avenue Christian at Wesleyan. Collins Hill and Buford also are at home.

“All that brings an atmosphere of having a great program because all the people around you are running great programs,’' Maloof said.

Here are more facts and news about the semifinals:

Regionalism: Gwinnett’s not the only gathering point for semifinals teams. Six others are within two miles of U.S. 84, also known as Georgia 38, in South Georgia. They are (west to east) Bainbridge, Brooks County, Lowndes, Valdosta, Clinch County and Pierce County. Savannah also boasts a pair of semifinal teams, Benedictine and Calvary Day.

Who’s in: The semifinals are full of regular customers. Of 32 teams, 27 have made the final four at least one other time since 2016. Only Trinity Christian is making its first GHSA semifinals appearance, and the Lions were state runners-up in their last Georgia Independent School Association season of 2017. And only Metter, the No. 1-ranked team in Class A Public, hasn’t been in any previous semifinal since 2010. The Tigers last appeared in 2002.

Who’s out: Eagle’s Landing Christian’s run of five state titles and nine semifinals appearances was ended last week when the Chargers fell to Prince Avenue Christian. Blessed Trinity and Cedar Grove, two other 2019 champions, also were beaten, Blessed Trinity by Warner Robins and Cedar Grove by Crisp County. Clinch County now has the longest streak of semifinals appearances with six. Buford and Irwin County are the only reigning state champs still alive.

Favorites: The teams to beat, and their percent chances of winning it all according to the Maxwell Ratings, are Grayson in 7A (43%), Lee County in 6A (36%), Warner Robins in 5A (63%), Jefferson in 4A (50%), Oconee County in 3A (43%), Fitzgerald in 2A (69%), Prince Avenue Christian in 1A Private (83%) and Brooks County in 1A Public (56%). Prince Avenue Christian has never won a state title in football. Fitzgerald last won in 1948. Oconee and Brooks last won in the 1990s.

Notable players: Only two of the state’s consensus top-10 senior recruits are still playing, and both are quarterbacks - Prince Avenue’s Brock Vandagriff, who signed with Georgia this week, and Grayson’s Jake Garcia, who signed with Miami. Two of the best juniors still playing also are quarterbacks. Gunner Stockton of Rabun County and Malaki Starks of Jefferson are five-star recruits.

Best matchup: Norcross and Grayson are the only undefeated teams in Class 7A and two of only eight in all classes. Each has won two state titles, Grayson in 2011 and 2016 and Norcross in 2012 and 2013. The computer Maxwell Ratings have Grayson as a two-point favorite.

Other good ones: Valdosta (24 state titles) and Buford (12) have more championships than any other Georgia schools, and they’re playing each other for the first time. Warner Robins is one victory from its fourth consecutive state final and playing against Jones County, whose coach, Mike Chastain, led Warner Robins to the first two of those finals. Irwin County, the defending Class 1A Public champion, is playing at No. 1-ranked Metter, which has never won a state title. The Pierce County-Crisp County game in 3A is rated as the only pure tossup, according to the Maxwell Ratings.

Next: The 16 winners will advance to the finals Dec. 28-30 at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium.