5 teams to watch
Fitzgerald’s Ashton Newell carries the ball in last year’s title game. The Purple Hurricane enter the season ranked No. 1 in Class AA. (Photo by Brant Sanderlin for the AJC)
Welcome to the first Class AA blog of the 2016 football season. Thanks to reclassification, a new region alignment makes AA look completely different. Gone are all the private schools from Region 6 that dominated athletics across the board, including Wesleyan, GAC, Lovett and Pace Academy, which won last year’s football title. In fact, except for two private schools in Savannah, all private schools have left AA. (An in-depth look into the controversy of the two Savannah schools remaining in AA was published in March and is well worth the read.)
With the reclassification dust settled, the new-look AA will begin competing in a few weeks and here’s a look at five teams to keep an eye on:
2015 results: 13-2; second place in Region 2; lost to Pace Academy 42-21 in state championship.
2016 outlook: The Purple Hurricane are a preseason favorite to contend for the AA title and enter the season ranked No. 1. The state runners up from a season ago have a good chunk of talent returning this fall, led by running back and AJC Super 11 pick JD King, athlete James Graham, tight end Lecitus Smith and defensive back Josh Reliford.
They open the season with five non region games and the first two are against Irwin County and Macon County, Class A-public’s No. 5 and 2 teams, respectively. On Oct. 21 they host rival Brooks County in their eight game of the season – a matchup that could determine Region 1’s top seed.
2015 results: 12-1; Region 2 champs; lost to Fitzgerald 54-28 in the quarterfinals.
2016 outlook: The Cadets are AA’s No. 2 preseason team out of Region 2. They look to finish the drill this season after jumping off to a 12-0 start only to have their repeat championship aspirations railroaded by the Purple Hurricane. Receiver and running back John Wesley Kennedy headlines the offense and linebacker Chris Harris anchors the defense.
The Cadets play at AAAA’s No. 4 team St. Pius X in their second game of the season, opening with three non-region games before diving into league play. Perhaps their biggest region game comes on Sept. 23, when they play No. 3 Vidalia.
2015 results: 11-2; Region 8 champs; lost to Jefferson County 31-28 in the quarterfinals.
2016 outlook: The Wildcats enter the season ranked No. 8 and continue a complete program turnaround under coach Lee Shaw, who took over in 2012. They finished 1-9 in each season from 2007-2010 and 3-7 in 2011, but have since gone 6-5, 8-3, 9-3 and 11-2. Shaw is a quarterback guru, with his best work highlighted by his son Connor Shaw, the former South Carolina Gamecock who is now a quarterback in the NFL. So it’s no coincidence the offense is led by quarterback Bailey Fisher, an AA all-state selection.
The Wildcats’ big test will come on Oct. 21 against new region rival Elbert County, ranked No. 7.
2015 results: 10-3, Region 1 champs; lost to GAC 23-12 in the quarterfinals.
2016 outlook: The Trojans enter the season ranked No. 4 out of Region 1 and are expected to make their ninth consecutive postseason appearance despite being a relatively young team. They return two starters on offense and three on defense. The ninth consecutive appearance is set to come in Maurice Freeman’s ninth season with the program during his second stint (he first coached Brooks County from 1994-97), and the Trojans have posted double digit wins every season season since 2012.
The Trojans have Oct. 21 circled on their calendar – that’s when they travel to Fitzgerald for what could decide the Region 1 champion.
2015 results: 7-4; lost to Lovett 34-28 in the first round.
2016 outlook: The Indians are a bit of a dark horse in AA, in fact they’re the only team on this short list that’s not ranked. But they’re an interesting team to keep an eye on and play in Region 7, which features no teams ranked in the preseason. After five consecutive non-winning seasons, the Indians turned their program around last year, which was coach Charles Hammon’s second year at Chattooga. It will be interesting to see what the Indians do to build off of last year behind running back Isaiah Foster, who will have one of the state’s best lineman blocking for him in Mike Adams.
The Indians close the regular season with seven region games, with notable matchups including Oct. 14 against Model and at Pepperrell on Nov. 11.
Some helpful links ahead of the 2016 season