Top 10 offseason high school stories: 129 teams change classes, hires, more

Gainesville announced the hiring of  former Hoover, Ala., coach Josh Niblett on Dec. 13. Niblett won six state titles at Hoover, a school outside of Birmingham.

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Gainesville announced the hiring of former Hoover, Ala., coach Josh Niblett on Dec. 13. Niblett won six state titles at Hoover, a school outside of Birmingham.

High school football in Georgia will be different in 2022.

Of 412 GHSA teams, 129 are in new classifications, and 93 have new head coaches. Lowndes and Valdosta share a region for the first time since 2015. Buford and Collins Hill share a region for the first time in history.

The GHSA is back for its 115th year despite legislative threats to the contrary, and the Georgia High School Football Hall of Fame is newly operating, planning its first induction in October.

This is the first week that Georgia’s football teams can hold mandatory practices in pads. The first games games Aug. 17.

Here are 10 newsworthy stories from an unusually eventful and too-often tragic offseason.

*Big hire: Gainesville won eight region championships and a state title during a 12-year spell earlier this century, but the Red Elephants’ most recent playoff victory came in 2015. Needing reinvigoration, Gainesville introduced Josh Niblett as its head coach on Dec. 13. Niblett is best known for his 14 seasons at Alabama’s Hoover High, where he won state titles in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

*Hunter’s stunner: Four days after leading Collins Hill to its first state championship, the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit, Travis Hunter, signed with Jackson State in a decision that could rank as the all-time Signing Day stunner. Hunter and Jackson State coach Deion Sanders laughed off claims that Hunter signed an NIL deal worth $1 million. Hunter would go on to sweep the state’s player of the year awards, and by June, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in his Jackson State uniform and dubbed a trend-setter. Hunter finished his Georgia career with 3,963 receiving yards and a state-record 48 touchdown receptions.

*Unthinkable tragedy: Roswell star quarterback Robbie Roper died on Dec. 22, just 26 days after playing his final game in the Class 7A quarterfinals. In May, Robbie’s father, James, told USA Today that his son suffered from elevated blood ammonia levels caused by a rare genetic condition called urea cycle disorders (UCD) and fell ill while vacationing. Roper, who stood 6-foot-4, was a senior who began the 2021 season without scholarship offers but was beginning to get opportunities after a breakout season. He passed for 3,010 yards and 37 touchdowns while leading Roswell to a 10-3 finish and a top-10 final ranking.

*Surprising exits: On Jan. 3, Rabun County’s Jaybo Shaw became the first of several successful Georgia coaches to get a wow reaction for leaving a high-profile position. He resigned to take the Wayne County job in South Georgia. Three days later, Milton’s Adam Clack resigned without a new job lined up. He landed on UNC Charlotte’s staff in June. Jonathan Gess, who stepped down at Eagle’s Landing Christian in March, was another resigning coach who not only won big but was strongly associated with his previous school. Gess won six state titles for ELCA but now strives to coach up Hebron Christian, a small Gwinnett County private school. Other distinguished coaches on the move included Oconee County’s Travis Noland to Jefferson, Riverwood’s Robert Edwards to alma mater Washington County, Colquitt County’s Justin Rogers to Thomas County Central, Thomasville’s Zach Grage to Lowndes and Westlake’s Bobby May to Kell.

*Reclass done, finally: The GHSA ratified reclassification Jan. 14, putting an end to the most tumultuous reclass process in decades, if not ever. Here’s how the dust settled: The public-private split in Class A is gone, replaced with Class A Divisions I and II, each with public and private schools; Class 3A and 2A gained 13 former Class A private schools, including ELCA, Fellowship Christian, Wesleyan and Athens Academy; Buford and Carrollton, along with returnees Valdosta and Westlake, are now in the highest class; Roswell went down one to 6A: Class 2A runner-up Thomasville went up one, and 4A runner-up Carver of Columbus went down one; Trinity Christian, Westminster, Pace Academy, Lovett and Holy Innocents’ are in 4A; Blessed Trinity, Woodward Academy, St. Pius and Marist are in 6A; Rabun County, still chasing its first state title, is in the new Class A Division I, while Division II is the new home to smaller schools such as Clinch County and Lincoln County.

*We’re leaving: The GHSA will be slimmer this season without 15 football-playing members, 13 of which joined the Georgia Independent School Association. The 15 schools are Brookstone, Deerfield-Windsor, First Presbyterian, George Walton Academy, Heritage of Newnan, Lakeview Academy, Loganville Christian, Mount de Sales, Our Lady of Mercy (now called St. Mary’s Academy), Pinecrest Academy, Riverside Military, St. Anne-Pacelli, Stratford Academy, Strong Rock Christian and Tattnall Square. Most were former GHSA Class A Private schools. Almost all were former GISA members, but St. Anne-Pacelli had fielded GHSA football teams since 1960, and its Columbus archrival, Brookstone, had played in the GHSA since 1971. Many didn’t like a new GHSA rule that would make transferring student-athletes ineligible for a year at private schools if they did not move into the school’s service area.

*Takeover averted: The state legislature floated bills starting in January that would’ve taken over the GHSA. Such threats are common and sometimes bully the GHSA into doing lawmakers’ bidding. The bills initially railed against private schools playing with public schools and about transfers having to sit out a year unless they moved into their new districts. The GHSA didn’t budge on those issues but appeased lawmakers’ concerns about increasing travel costs with an April 11 decision by the GHSA executive committee to revert to six classifications beginning in 2024. Technically, it was a move back to seven classifications from eight, as Class A had public and private divisions that operated just like classes.

*Hall of Famers: Score Atlanta, a sports marketing group, announced the creation of the non-profit Georgia High School Football Hall of Fame on Feb. 18. The Hall released a 100-player ballot on June 14 and finalized its inaugural 45-player class on July 14 through voting from a 35-member board comprising media members and former and current high school coaches and administrators. The first class includes the nine former Georgia players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame given automatic induction. Leading the elected 36 were Heisman Trophy winners George Rogers of Duluth, Herschel Walker of Johnson County and Charlie Ward of Thomas County Central. The first induction will take place Oct. 22 at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta.

*Who plays who? The GHSA published the 2022 football schedules in May. New schedules are more fun in even-numbered years because it means new regions, classes and rivalries. The new region setup will send Class 7A champion Collins Hill to 6A champion Buford, Class 4A runner-up Carver of Columbus to 2A runner-up Thomasville and Blessed Trinity to crosstown rival Roswell. ELCA, now in 2A, plays at Callaway in a new private-public matchup brought on by ending the Class A public-private split. The schedules also showed Georgia teams again seeking out more out-of-state competition. Brookwood will showcase Alabama-committed quarterback Dylan Lonergan and play at Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas.

*Gone too soon: Al Pellegrini of Shaw and Kirk Warner of Liberty County, two Georgia head coaches in their 50s, died within three weeks of each other in late spring. Pellegrini, 56, was vacationing in Orlando when he passed away May 30. An autopsy disclosed the cause of death as hypertensive cardiovascular disease. Warner was Liberty County’s coach since 2002. He was the high school coach of NFL players Raekwon McMillan and Richard LeCounte and was a University of Georgia tight end. Warner had been fighting angiosarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in the lining of the blood vessels and lymph vessels. Warner was 54.