GHSA finals primer: Five schools chasing first state titles

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Fitzgerald on 72-year quest

Five schools that have never won football state titles and one that has waited 72 years will try to make history this week in the GHSA’s state championships, which are set for Monday through Wednesday at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium.

Collins Hill (7A), Pierce County (3A), Callaway (2A), Prince Avenue Christian (1A Private) and Trinity Christian (1A Private) have never won, and it won’t be easy this time. Only Prince Avenue Christian among those is favored to win, according to the computer Maxwell Ratings, which have missed only 28 of 236 playoff predictions this season.

Fitzgerald, ranked No. 1 in Class 2A and facing Callaway, can break the longest drought. The Purple Hurricane’s lone championship came in 1948, the first year that the GHSA held statewide playoffs in all classifications. Fitzgerald coach Tucker Pruitt is a 2004 graduate of the South Georgia school. He played quarterback under his father, Robby Pruitt, who led the program to four semifinals or better. Tucker Pruitt got the job in 2017.

’'I chased it as a player; my dad chased it as a coach,’' Tucker Pruitt told GBP Sports, which will televise all finals. “Both of my brothers have chased it. A lot of my friends and buddies have chased it, and we’ve come up short. Just to have the opportunity at a place that I’m familiar with and played at, it means everything to me.’'

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Here’s what fans need to know about the 2020 finals.

Why now? The finals are being played after Christmas for the first time. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the GHSA to postpone the season two weeks, and then to avoid the Christmas weekend, the GHSA pushed the finals back four more days. Weekday finals also occurred in 2018 because of a venue conflict with the MLS playoffs.

What’s new? The finals are a three-day event for the first time and will include flag football, the GHSA’s newest sport. Moving to three days, made possible by cheaper rent relative to that charged by previous host Mercedes-Benz Stadium, eliminates four-game schedules, 10 a.m. starts and midnight finishes. All opening games will start at noon, and the last games will kick off at 7 p.m.

New sport in town: The first official state championships in flag football will be decided Monday as Portal plays Calvary Day at noon in Class A-5A and West Forsyth meets Hillgrove at 1:30 p.m. in 6A-7A. With strong financial backing from the Falcons, flag football was contested as a club sport the previous two seasons. About 90 schools fielded teams this fall.

Teams to beat: The Maxwell Ratings favor Grayson over Collins Hill by 17, Warner Robins over Cartersville by 3, Marist over Jefferson by 6, Oconee County over Pierce County by 4, Fitzgerald over Callaway by 13, Prince Avenue Christian over Trinity by 19 and Brooks County over Irwin County by 2. The Buford-Lee County game is a tossup and “probably the closest state championship projection in history with only 0.04 points difference between them,” according to Maxwell.

Rematches: Two of the eight championships are rematches from the regular season. Grayson beat Collins Hill 28-7, and Irwin County beat Brooks County 21-13. There have been 34 previous state-title games that were rematches. The original winner is 19-13 in the finals, but the original loser has won 10 of the past 16. Two of the original games were ties.

Best matchup: The Marist-Jefferson game is the only game between undefeated teams. Both are 12-0. Both run option offenses and pass fewer than 10 times per game. Jefferson averages 44.0 points, best in its class. Marist allowing 2.8 points per game, best in the state, and has shut out eight opponents, the most of any Georgia team since 2011.

Top players: Leading player-of-the-year contenders hoping for one last big performance include Collins Hill’s Travis Hunter (1,639 yards receiving, two-way starter), Jefferson’s Malaki Starks (1,457 yards rushing, 542 passing), Warner Robins’ Jalen Addie (1,944 yards passing, 947 rushing) and Prince Avenue Christian’s Brock Vandagriff (3,907 yards passing and 60 passing or rushing touchdowns).

Midyear boost: Two finalists have star quarterbacks who arrived in midseason and began starting around playoff time. Grayson’s Jake Garcia, who signed with Miami, came from Valdosta, where he was declared ineligible after moving from California. Cartersville’s Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, who signed with Florida, came from Grayson, where he was declared ineligible after moving from the McEachern district. The GHSA ruled that their original moves didn’t meet all requirements for transfer eligibility. They GHSA has since moved to outlaw the mulligans, meaning those ineligible at one school can’t try again elsewhere.

Quarterback trivia: Vandagriff, Garcia, Del Rio-Wilson, Jefferson’s Malaki Starks and Collins Hill’s Sam Horn are four-star recruits or higher, all quarterbacks. Only four starting quarterbacks with those credentials have won GHSA championships since 2000. They are Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville (2015-16), Deshaun Watson of Gainesville (2012), Harrison Bailey of Marietta (2019) and Blake Mitchell of LaGrange (2001).

Alma maters: Pruitt of Fitzgerald is among three coaches seeking titles at their alma maters. Brooks County’s Maurice Freeman and Cartersville’s Conor Foster are the others. Foster played on Cartersville’s 1999 state championship team. The Georgia High School Football Historians Association has identified only six people who have won state titles as a GHSA player and head coach. Foster would be the first to achieve both at his alma mater.

Final tidbits: Marist can win coach Alan Chadwick’s 399th game and its first state title since 2003, when now-Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was Marist’s quarterback. ... Warner Robins is in the finals for the fourth consecutive time, but hasn’t won since 2004. ... Buford can win its 13th state title. Only Valdosta, with 24, has more. ... There are three state finalists from Gwinnett County (Grayson, Collins Hill, Buford) and two from Oconee County (Oconee County, Prince Avenue Christian). ... Only two 2019 champions, Buford and Irwin County, are still playing. The last time there has been no repeat champion was 2012.

Tickets: They must be purchased at participating schools or online through GoFan Digital at $20. They won’t be sold the day of the games.

Schedule:

Monday

Noon: Portal vs. Calvary Day (Flag football A-5A)

1:30 p.m.: Hillgrove vs. West Forsyth (Flag football 6A-7A)

3:30 p.m.: Prince Avenue Christian vs. Trinity Christian (A Private)

7 p.m.: Irwin County vs. Brooks County (A Public)

Tuesday

Noon: Fitzgerald vs. Callaway (2A)

3:30 p.m.: Marist vs. Jefferson (4A)

7 p.m.: Buford vs. Lee County (6A)

Wednesday

Noon: Oconee County vs. Pierce County (3A)

3:30 p.m.: Warner Robins vs. Cartersville (5A)

7 p.m.: Grayson vs. Collins Hill (7A)