Epic final game caps season of change

Article and photos courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution –> Original Article Here

(Daniel Varnado/Special to AJC)

(Daniel Varnado/Special to AJC)

This is our final week of GHSF Daily, and it will be a partial one. We expect to finish up Wednesday with the final composite rankings and the scoutSMART academic all-state team.

Here are 10 final takeaways and observations from the season and the state championships.

*Grayson vs. Roswell: The Class AAAAAAA championship game will go down as one of the dozen best and most memorable games in state history. There have been only four overtime games in the finals, and this one entailed a touchdown on the final play of regulation to force it. Grayson won 23-20. Both teams were ranked in the top 10 nationally. This was the most rawly talented pair of finalists in history as about 20 players in the game will sign with major Division I programs in February.

*Grayson in history: Grayson will finish in the top five of almost every national poll. Its roster – which comprises five of Georgia’s top 32 senior recruits and seven of the top 100 – is almost surely unmatched in state history. Loren Maxwell of the Maxwell Ratings did an article this week calculating that Grayson is the 14th most dominant team since the GHSA began staging statewide playoffs in all classes in 1948. Rush Propst, who has coached or played against every Georgia champion in the highest class since 2009, called Grayson the most talented Georgia team he’s ever seen, but added, “not necessarily the best team.” That would open the door for his 2014 and (especially) 2015 teams that went 15-0. Mill Creek coach Shannon Jarvis, whose team lost to Colquitt (2015) and Grayson (2016) in the semifinals, had this assessment: “Grayson is the most talented team I have ever faced or witnessed at the high school level. They are simply that good. As impressive as their speed and athleticism are at every position, what gets lost is their depth. The players that roll in on the defensive line and the athletes that are on their special teams are just as impressive as their starters. Very impressive team.” Virtually the same could be said for Roswell, which might go down as the best team that didn’t win a title.

*The Big 48: The GHSA’s decision to shrink the highest classification to schools with enrollments of 2,100 or more had the desired effect. The idea was that schools in the 1,800-2,100 range such as Valdosta (2,006) and Tucker (1,824) were too outnumbered in the highest class, which tops out at 3,998 (Mill Creek). Reclassification trimmed the highest class to 48 from 64. The most recent result – Valdosta’s first state title since 1998 – suggested that talk of the Wildcat dynasty’s extinction was exaggerated. Maybe they’d just been losing out to larger schools all this time.

*Roman empire revived: Much was written about Valdosta’s return to glory, and rightly so. But Rome’s Class AAAAA championship was a revival of its own. Those who remember the merger of East Rome and West Rome in 1992 can attest. West Rome won state titles in 1965, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985. The 1982-85 champs won with three head coaches (Mike Hodges, Charlie Winslette, Rodney Walker) and went 59-1. East Rome’s 1977-78 champions went 30-0. The backfield of Larry Kinnebrew, Greg Gordon and Sylvester Elkins signed with Georgia, a remarkable feat for a Class AA school of that era. Other Floyd County public schools such as Model, Pepperell and Coosa account for several more state titles, but none since 1992, when Rome opened and East Rome and West Rome closed. The 2016 Rome Wolves served as a history lesson. What used to be might be again.

*The great eight: The GHSA added a seventh classification and eighth state champion this year. It might require a second season to confirm, but it appeared to water down the playoffs, which expanded to 240 teams from 192. Teams ranked in the top four of the final regular-season rankings went 56-0 in the first two rounds. Five No. 1-ranked teams won state titles, and two more were runners-up.

*The privates: Another GHSA objective was to jettison city schools and the larger private schools (non-Class A) into higher classifications via the GHSA’s new three-percent rule. Schools that get more than three percent of their enrollment outside of their counties had to move up. The effect was minimal in football. Benedictine, which escaped the private-school fish net, remained in Class AA and won it. Greater Atlanta Christian moved to Class AAA and nearly won it. Private schools performed about the same as they ever did, and even AA was outfoxed by the only private school still in it. The effort to snag city schools proved as slippery as wet soap from the outset. Only Buford, Jefferson and Bremen were bumped. Intended target Cartersville fell below three percent and dominated AAAA. Rome, also a city school, won AAAAA, beating another city school, Buford.

*Class A: The final effect of reclassification was to make Class A bigger (to 90 from 74 football-playing schools). That took place partly because of the public-private split. If you’re going to have separate champions and now 24 playoff teams each, then the public and private pools in Class A can and should be larger, the thinking goes. The bulk of Class A certainly noticed that public champion Macon County (478 students) and public runner-up McIntosh County Academy (442) dropped into Class A because of its expansion. Perhaps it’s just a case of public schools not having their cake and eating it too. They don’t have to play private schools in the playoffs any more, but they don’t get to win championships from a body of just 40 schools.

*Transfers: Plenty has been written about the state-contending teams that benefited from transfers. Here’s a look at the other side of the tracks. Miller Grove finished 6-4 in 2015 and had the talent to win its first region title in history this year, as Region 5-AAAAA was not the strongest. But amid the uncertainty of a coaching change, Miller Grove’s best players looked elsewhere. Taurean Taylor went to Tucker and became the Region 4-AAAAAA offensive player of the year. Mike Harris, a linebacker, went to Lovejoy and became the 4-AAAAAA defensive player of the year. Brent Cox, a defensive end, went to Stockbridge and became the Region 4-AAAAA defensive player of the year. New coach Justin Larmond counted that he lost seven all-region players – Taylor, Cox, Harris, Jamel Starks (Southwest DeKalb), Octavia Williams (Lithonia), Rashad Preston (Cedar Grove) and Jameson Collier (Brookwood). “It devastated the program as I walked in the door,” Larmond said. To his and the team’s credit, Miller Grove finished 4-7 and made the state playoffs for the first time.

*What can be done: Georgia already is among the more restrictive states for transfers. The GHSA in most cases requires a change of residence into the new school district or service area for a student-athlete to become eligible for sports immediately. Suggestions made in GHSF Daily’s Four Questions feature include making transfers ineligible for a year if they change schools within a county, school district or an area (for example, 60-mile radius). Some have proposed a partial sit-out clause, such as one-third of the regular season. Others want no change, noting that it’s a free country. As Colquitt’s Propst put it, “Would you tell band students they can’t go to the Rose Bowl Parade if they transfer to Lassiter?” Some states are making it easier, not more difficult, for students to transfer and be eligible to play. Their high school associations are fearful of being sued if they don’t.

*Player of the year: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s all-state team should come out around Christmas. The Georgia Sports Writers Association’s team will be closer to New Year’s. Gatorade on Monday named Cartersville junior QB Trevor Lawrence as its Georgia player of the year. Will he also be the choice of the AJC and GSWA? Grayson and Roswell have multiple contenders, from quarterbacks Chase Brice and Malik Willis to multi-purpose guys such as DeAngelo Gibbs and Xavier McKinney. Macon County QB K’hari Lane threw for a record 56 TD passes and won a state title. Though he missed the playoffs, Houston County QB Jake Fromm put up the best per-game passing numbers in state history. Top recruits such as Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian, Aubrey Solomon of Lee County and Richard LeCounte of Liberty County had big years. Stay tuned.

Produced by Georgia High School Football Daily, a free e-mail newsletter.

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