Wednesday, April 14

2019 Regional Football Preview

Hard to believe that we are at the start of a new school year in our region. And with the start of the new school year, you have the start of a new year of high school sports for fans to follow across our area.

What does 2019 hold for our teams? Who will be the top players in the area? Who is poised to challenge for a state championship? Only time will tell us the exact answer to each of these questions. We’re going to take a look around the region at the teams in our area, and ask the question, could they be the one that takes it all the way.

Before we start looking ahead, let’s go back and look at the 2018 football season for a few minutes. 

In Class AAA, the Region 8-AAA championship went to the Monroe Area Purple Hurricanes. Led by an unbelievable senior class, the Canes advanced to the the quarter finals of the State  Playoffs before losing to Pierce County. In Class AA, the 8-AA title was won by Rabun County in Lee Shaws final season. The Wildcats advanced the the Elite 8, where they fell to Fitzgerald, in a game played at Rabun. In Class AAAA, the Stephens County Indians fell in the opening round to eventual State Runner up Cartersville. In Class AAAAAA, the Raiders of Habersham Central advanced to the second round of the playoffs, falling to Creekside.

In 2019, the one thing that is sure is that there are a number of teams in our area who have an outstanding opportunity to not only compete for Region Championships, but to also be in the hunt deep into the State playoffs in November and December

In Region 8-AAA, the largest region in our coverge area, their could be as many as five teams that have a real opportunity to make noise this year. Jefferson, Morgan County, Hart County, Franklin County, along with Jackson County and Monroe Area are positioned for what will be a very entertaining  sprint to the post season. 

Defending Region champion Monroe Area is faced with replacing one of the largest senior classes in our area, including All – State selection Chandler Byron, who ran for over 2000 yards while leading Monroe to 12 straight wins. Head Coach Kevin Roach will have a young and athletic team that will improve as the season progresses.

On paper, the 2019 champion for Region 8-AAA should come from the survivor of Jefferson, Hart County, and Morgan County. The Dragons of Jefferson, coached by Gene Cathcart, finished in the runner-up spot to Monroe Area in 2018. The Dragons return a solid nucleus of talent on both offense and defense, but must fill some spots from the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. 

At Madison, the Bulldogs of Morgan County were one of the youngest teams in the region last season and return multiple players on both sides of the ball. The Morgan Bulldogs close out their season with a game against the Bulldogs of Hart County, which could decide the Region Championship and playoff seeding for the two teams

At Hart County, head coach Rance Gillespie enters his third season with the Bulldogs, returning a veteran team that has grown and matured over the past three years. Elsewhere in 8-AAA, Franklin County looks to challenge for a playoff spot in 2019, following a season where the Lions fell to Hart County in week nine by the score of 14-10 in a game in Hartwell. Jackson County and East Jackson look to continue their rise this year, and to build into programs that can compete on a yearly basis in one of the strongest Regions in class AAA.

As for picking the Region 8-AAA champion and play off teams for 2019, it’s best to look at the recent history of the region. When you look at the recent history of the region it’s easy to say that the championship favorite is Jefferson. The Dragons of Gene Cathcart return a number of players on both offense and defense, and thanks to the quirks of the schedule will play both Franklin and Morgan County at home in the month of October. Couple experience with the tradition of being in the hunt each year for post season action, should place Jefferson into the role of favorite this year.

Looking at both Morgan County and Hart County, it should be a real dog fight for the number two spot in the region. Fans who attended the game in Hartwell in 2018, saw two teams that were both young and talented. Morgan survived a 2 pt attempt overtime to capture the number 3 spot in the region. These two teams play in Madison on November 8, and there is no reason why this game should be any different.

Many people expect Jefferson, Morgan County and Hart County to be in a year long battle for the top three spots in Region 8-AAA. If this is true, then who is the team that can possibly crash the party and be part of the post season for 2019? 

Look for the fight for the number 4 spot to be a three way contest between Monroe Area, Jackson
County, and Franklin County. 

Even with the graduation losses at Monroe, the Purple Hurricanes will return a young and athletic team that plays host to both Hart County and Jefferson in the final weeks of the year. The Jackson County Panthers welcome Rich McWhorter from Charlton County as their new head coach. McWhorter comes to the Jefferson school with nearly 300 wins, which include 15 Region and 4 State Championships on his resume while at Charlton. Franklin County finished as the odd man out last year, finishing in 5th place, just outside of qualifying for the post season, losing close games to both Jefferson and Hart County.

At Hart County, Rance Gilliespe enters his third season returning his top runner and one of the nations top recruits. The Bulldogs open their season against Elbert County at home for the first time in two seasons, and face Region power Jefferson at home October 11th. The Bulldogs feature a pair of preseason all state selections in defensive lineman Kaimon Rucker and tight end Cane Berrong. The Bulldogs also return one of the top rushers in AAA in Malachi Thomas who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2018. 

What about the other schools in Northeast Georgia?

In Region 8-AA, the road to the championship goes through Clayton Georgia and the Wildcats of Rabun County. Rabun won the Region championship in 2018 before falling to Fitzgerald in the quarterfinals of the Class AA playoffs. Jaybo Shaw takes over at Rabun for his father Lee Shaw, who retired at the end of the 2018 season, and is led by sophomore Gunner Stockman, one of the top quarterbacks in the state of Georgia.

Elsewhere, look for Union County, Elbert County, Banks County and Monticello to determine the final 3 spots in Region play. The schedule features Rabun County traveling to Union and Elbert in the final weeks of the season.

At Elbert, Brad Waggoner takes over for Sid Frits who retired at Elbert following the conclusion of the 2018 season, his ninth year with Elbert County. Waggoner is excited about the start of his first season with the Blue Devils, and is aware of the challenge facing him. “It’s important for us to stay healthy this year. We have a lot of young faces in different spots, and we need to focus on the goal of getting better each practice and each game.” He added that, “our goal each year is get our selves into a position to win the Region.” Look for Elbert’s offense to feature D.J. Ardister and Shaun Allen. Both are seniors and we’ll be counted on by the Blue Devils for offensive production as well as leadership during the season.

In Region 8-AAAA, the battle will between for 4 spots among the region’s five teams, with St. Pius X of Atlanta looking to repeat as champions. In Toccoa, Wesley Tankersley enters his second season with the Stephens County Indians. Looking to build off of a year where the Indians traveled to play Cartersville in the playoffs, Coach Tankersley said, “ I like this teams work building from 2018”. He added that the Indians are “going to be as good as we are on the line of scrimmage this year. Our offensive line returns 3 starters, and will be important to our success.” He added that, “ a lot of people are familiar with Hudson Spurlock (Sr. Wingback), but it’s these young men who will allow Hudson and our team to enjoy this year.”

At Danielsville, the Red Raiders are looking to post a winning record for the first time since 2016, and to reach the state playoffs for the first time since 2017. Coach Chris Smith’s Red Raiders will look to control the ball with a solid running game, and pull a surprise in this five team region.

Elsewhere in our area, Habersham Central looks to build on their success from 2018 when they advanced to the second round of the AAAAAA playoffs. Benji Harrison’s 2019 Raiders will be celebrating their 50th season with a young team that will be facing a challenging Region schedule that includes powers Lanier and Gainesville.

The next 3 months will be filled with many big games that will impact the playoffs and determine the champions of the area Regions. In Class AA, favorite Rabun County faces two of the other favorites in Elbert and Union County, both on the road in October and November. Elbert County will face Union at Union on October 4 in a rematch of a game won by Union 29-28.

October and November will be huge months in 8-AAA as everyone enters Region play. In October, Hart County and Jefferson will do battle in Hartwell in an early game where the winner will control their destiny in the region. The final two weekends are huge with post season implications as the top 5 teams in the region play to determine standings and seedings for post season.

The Indians of Stephens County will play their region schedule in the final 4 weeks of the year with games at Oconee County and Madison County, while playing host to North Oconee and St. Pius X of Atlanta on the final night of the regular season.

I said it was almost impossible, but I’m going to give you my predictions. In Region 8-AA, until someone steps up and beats Rabun County, the Wildcats are my pick to win 8-AA again. Look for the winner of the October 4 game between Union County and Elbert County to be for 2nd place in the region. Like 8-AA, 8-AAAA is a case of until  you beat the man. It’s hard to go against St. Pius X, not only because of the quality of the program, but the challenge of getting ready for an offense that you don’t see alot of in today’s football. 

Down in 8-AAA, all of the talk has been about the Dragons of Jefferson. Gene Cathcart’s charges face only one game of consequence away from Jefferson this season, when they travel to Hart County on October 11. The winner of that game will have early momentum in the hunt for the regular season championship in the region. Injuries hurt the Dragons in 2018, and they face a stretch of 9 straight weeks of play this year, so injuries are definitely something to watch if you follow Jefferson. 

In the final game of 2018, Morgan County defeated Hart County in overtime to claim the number  3 spot going into the playoffs. This year the rematch is at Madison on November 8, and this time the winner of this game could claim the Region Championship and a home playoff game.

It’s hard to go against Jefferson claiming the 2019 title, and look for Hart to get revenge over Morgan to finish second with Morgan and a rebuilding Monroe Area finish 3rd and 4th.

It’s almost impossible to predict the results of more than 200 games that will be played between now and the evening of November 8. One must remember that these young people are just that young people, not professional athletes. Enjoy these games for what they are, just games. Support your local schools, if you’re new to the area I challenge you to pick a team and go to a game.

See you on Fridays!!!

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