Collins Hill joins the parade from Gwinnett County to football finals

Collins Hill wide receiver Travis Hunter (12), quarterback Sam Horn (21), et al celebrate a state quarterfinal playoff victory over Gwinnett neighbor Parkview..

Credit: Jason Getz/Special to the AJC

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Collins Hill wide receiver Travis Hunter (12), quarterback Sam Horn (21), et al celebrate a state quarterfinal playoff victory over Gwinnett neighbor Parkview..

Credit: Jason Getz/Special to the AJC

It is time for the state high school football finals – who knew they’d even make it to the finish line of this viral season? So, regardless of all the uncertainties that COVID-19 wrought upon the secondary educational system, that must mean that Button Gwinnett’s county is at it again.

Just what the world needed, another high school in Gwinnett coming to power in football. It’s like New Orleans discovering another great restaurant. Complete overkill.

Wednesday evening at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium, in the grand finale to three days of young men in football rut, Collins Hill will play for its first state football title. In the biggest classification of a big-shouldered state – so big it requires seven A’s to spell it out – the Eagles will face Grayson.

ExploreGHSA State Championships: Football schedule Dec. 28-30

Grayson is from, you got it, Gwinnett. And it had to step over another county brother, Norcross, in the semifinals just to get here.

Throw in yet another Gwinnett team in the 6A finals, Buford, seeking its 12th state title since 2000 at various levels, and your Georgia football geography lesson is complete.

If there can be anything resembling a scrappy up-and-comer in this Gwinnecian saga, it’s Collins Hill. Others in its vicinity may take long playoff runs as a matter of routine, but not the Eagles. Like their grateful coach Lenny Gregory said, “That’s everybody’s goal to be in this game. Every year as a coach you set your plans, and this is what you’re shooting for. Some coaches, some players never get to do this. It’s a blessing that we’ve been able to pull it off to where we are now.”

His blessings include the 5-star Florida State commitment, two-way Travis Hunter, who all he did in the semifinals vs. Lowndes was put up 184 receiving yards for three touchdowns and snatch one interception. Someone has to throw the ball to him, and that would be junior Sam Horn, another big-time recruit in waiting.

Good times at Collins Hill.

“You got an elite quarterback, and I think we have an elite defense,” Gregory said. “I knew that those two things were going to be on our side. I knew we had a good defense coming back, we just needed to develop and mature. I feel good with that formula – good defense, good quarterback. Then you add in Travis Hunter and what he’s been able to do for us.”

Four years ago when interviewing for the head coaching job, Gregory pointed to a moment like this as what should be expected of him. Then when he got the job, he actually had to come through. It didn’t happen overnight. He went 5-6 in 2017, 3-8 in 2018 then 6-5 in 2019.

But, then, why shouldn’t it happen for one of the state’s biggest schools with an otherwise weighty athletic reputation? The school’s AD, Scarlett Grantham, can count 42 other team state titles for the Eagles. It’s Maya Moore’s school, after all.

“If you look at Collins Hill as an athletic program it seems they’ve won a state championship in every sport except for football,” Gregory said. “I look at (the trophies and awards) every time I’m in the commons.”

“We’ve had some successful teams in the past, but obviously there’s always that desire and drive from the community to have a state championship in football,” Grantham said. “Football is the sport that drives all the other sports. I’m sure there has been some disappointment through the years, but I think the focus lately has been on rebuilding.”

So another Gwinnett giant has been unleashed. Why, you wonder, is this one county so prominent when it comes time to identify football champions?

Sheer numbers – Gwinnett is the state’s second largest county by population, just behind Fulton – certainly account for part of it. “It’s such a big place. Every school in Gwinnett has athletes,” second-year Grayson coach Adam Carter said. “They get good coaches because it’s a good place to raise your family, a good place to work and teach at.

“There are athletes up here, you can’t deny that. There is a ton of talent coming out of Gwinnett County.”

Developing and funneling that talent through a web of high-quality youth programs has been a boon. Add some commitment to hire good coaches and build some good facilities, and the formula for this success is no big mystery.

Said Grantham, “There’s no better county to be in. It always starts at the top. You’ve got to have people that understand what you need to create the success we’ve had throughout the county.”

We might get rhapsodic about Friday nights in small-town Georgia and what the high school football means to the community. Having coached defense in Valdosta during a state title run in 2016, Grayson’s Carter knows how a town can rally around its armored teenagers. But he’ll argue that the football culture resonates just as strongly with the metro Atlanta kid as with the one from places writ small upon the map.

“Kids are kids. They all want to be a part of something. They want discipline. They want to be successful,” he said.

By quirk of fate, the driven kids from Grayson and those from Collins Hill played each other in September. A COVID outbreak on a scheduled opponent created a gap on the Eagles’ agenda. They filled in with a nationally ranked power. At first, Gregory was hesitant about playing the Rams, worried that the experience would traumatize his young players. But now, even after a 28-7 loss, he’s glad they took up the challenge. A little more experienced now, Collins Hill should be better positioned to compete with Grayson, Gregory figures.

You can feel a bit bad for a first-timer like Collins Hill, breaking through in a scattered season like this. The players are missing the usual trappings of being big men on campus. With much of the school in virtual learning, there has been no triumphant walks down crowded corridors of back-slapping classmates. On the walls there are no banners hailing their wins. No pep rallies. No sending off them off to Atlanta like a conquering army, although boosters are trying to devise some smaller, distanced appreciation next week.

“I long for the days of packing the gym and packing the stadium with our kids and our band and our cheerleaders. I miss that atmosphere. I miss being able to see people’s faces and not have to look through a mask,” said Grantham, who as AD said one of her jobs now includes enforcing unpopular game-day protocols.

“I long for the day I don’t have to walk up and down on the sidelines saying: ‘Six feet guys, six feet.’ And, ‘Put your mask on,’” she said.

“What we’ve done is really try to keep them focused and dialed in to what we have to do each week and not worry about all the outside distractions and what could have been,” Gregory said. “It is what it is. It’s the game we got to play. It’s what we’ve been dealt. Now, how do we become the best team we can be and get the most out of the situation?”

Be assured that even in these muted times, the players are excited. Students and staff and alumni share a twinge of pride. While splintered by the virus, Collins Hill has something new to bind it.

“I think this is a bright spot in what has been a pretty gloomy year,” Grantham said.