By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here’s a look at some key match ups in Week 7, with an in-depth look at a huge showdown in Region 2 (Charlton County at Turner County), one of the two all-public school regions.
But first, here’s a link to the latest Power Rankings, as of Oct. 2, provided by the Georgia High School Association and MaxPreps. Remember, the top 16 public and private schools will make the playoffs, where the No. 1 seed will host the No. 16 seed (similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament), and so forth. It’s also important to remember that a region winner will get the nod over a team from its region with a higher Power Ranking.
The picture is starting to come into focus a little better, but it’s still too early to do the “if the playoffs were today,” thing. Here at Class A Blog headquarters, we’ll wait at least a couple more weeks before we do that. The No. 1 seed right now on the public school side is Commerce (4-1, 0-1 in Region 8, unranked in the AJC Top 10, Trending in our Divided Top 5s), while Aquinas (4-0, 1-0 in Region 7, No. 3 in the AJC Top 10, No. 3 in our Divided Top 5s) is the top seed among private schools.
And now, the previews:
Charlton County (3-2, 1-0 in Region 2, ranked No. 10) at Turner County (4-1, 1-0, unranked). This one will be another match-up of two south Georgia towns that live and breathe through their high school teams.
In fact, it’s the reason Turner County head coach Erik Soliday brought his high-flying spread offense back to Ashburn, where he was the Rebels’ head coach from 1989 to 1996, when Turner advanced to the state playoffs in six of those eight years and went 49-39. Soliday moved on to metro Atlanta and Henry County for two sub-par seasons (a combined 6-14) before returning to south Georgia and a wildly successful five-year run at Americus, where he went 57-10 and won three region titles and back-to-back Class AA state championships in 2000 and 2001.
But when Americus merged with Sumter County in 2004, Soliday, a West Virginia native, headed back to his adopted hometown of Ashburn. During his seven-year absence, Turner went 28-42-1 with one playoff appearance.
“It’s a tough life down here. A lot of these kids are raised by single moms and I could see how [the downturn in the football program] affected the kids,” said Soliday, who is the head coach and athletic director at Turner. “I love coaching football down here and I wanted to give these kids something to look forward to, make them better football players and better students and find a way to get them [in college].”
Since Soliday returned in 2004, along with his brother Casey, an assistant on the staff, the Rebels are 52-40 with region championships in 2006 and 2005. There have been a couple of lean years, including the last three where Turner’s combined record is just 8-22. But this season those players have grown and matured into a steady, disciplined team.
“We knew we would have a lot of kids back this season, but if those kids aren’t very good players it doesn’t do you much good,” Soliday said. “But this group has some talent and works very hard.”
Leading the way is a core group of seniors that includes two-way lineman Jared Jackson (5-10, 230 pounds), running backs Mark Lamb (5-8, 140) and Ted Moore (5-8, 140) and quarterback Luke Soliday (5-10, 180), son of the head coach.
“Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it ain’t,” Soliday joked about having his son as his quarterback in his spread offense. “Things are intense [at school, during practice], but at home our football conversations are more laid back. But he knows the offense and one thing we’ve done is move the ball and protected it well.”
The Rebels’ veteran leadership concerns Charlton head coach Rich McWhorter, who said he is waiting for his team to show its true character. The Indians have alternated wins and losses all season, with the two losses being blowouts, albeit to good teams from larger classifications – AAAAA Ware County (31-0) and AA Fitzgerald (37-0). But last week Charlton gutted out a 32-26 win over a Wilcox County team that had been ranked in the top five all season.
“I’ve been asking them are we going to keep being one-week wonders, or are we going to get into a pattern where we are playing at a high level consistently,” McWhorter said. “And to be honest with you, I still don’t know.”
McWhorter is 240-52-2 in 23 seasons at Charlton, with 15 region championships and four state titles. But he said this team is one of the least talented groups he’s had, and he doesn’t mince words when discussing it.
“People say you can’t tell your team that they’re not that talented. Yes you can,” McWhorter said. “You have to be honest with them. I knew we wouldn’t be a very talented team with a bunch of playmakers like we’ve had in the past, but I thought we would be competitive and the kids have given tremendous effort.”
But McWhorter said he is trying to convince his team that they’ve had some good fortune this season, especially in last week’s big win over Wilcox.
“All I have to do is turn on the film,” McWhorter said. “[Wilcox] had 17 penalties and three turnovers and they still had 407 yards and scored 26 points. And I keep telling them that this team from Turner County is a good team, an experienced team that is enjoying some success and so they are playing with confidence.”
McWhorter hopes he doesn’t have to tell his team, “I told you so,” when Friday’s game is over.
“Sometimes after a game, I’ve had players tell me, ‘See coach, you were worried for nothing,’ ” McWhorter said. “I hope this is one of those times. I guess we’ll find out about 10:30 [p.m.] or so Friday night.”
Other key games:
Athens Academy at Prince Avenue Christian. Athens Academy is 4-0, 1-0 in Region 8 and ranked No. 8, while PAC is 5-0, 1-0 and ranked No. 2. The game between schools that are just seven miles apart will go a long way toward determining the region championship, as well as seeding in the Class A Private School Power Rankings, where Athens Academy is seeded No. 2 and PAC No. 6, at this point.
Athens Academy is led by 14 seniors, including quarterback Austin Schulty and safety Forest Leidberg.
“Our kids know it’s a big game, but I think they know that when it’s over with, we have to move on – win or lose,” Athens Academy head coach Mike Gunn said.
PAC is paced by seniors Tyler Parrish (OL/DL), Sam Kennon (LB/OL), and Carl Mattox (RB/DB), and junior Christian Payne (TE/LB).
“We’re never going to be the biggest or strongest or fastest or most athletic, so we can never relax,” said PAC head coach Mark Farriba. “We have to play harder and smarter than everyone we play in order to be successful.”
Hancock Central at Aquinas. Hancock is 3-1, 1-0 in Region 7, while Aquinas is 4-0, 1-0 and ranked No. 3. Despite not being ranked in the Top 10, Hancock will try to maintain its No. 4 spot in the Class A Public School Power Rankings and prove that it is in the race for the Region 7 crown when the Bobcats travel to Augusta to face the Irish. Behind hard-charging running back/linebacker Brendan Douglass, currently, Aquinas sits atop the Class A Private School Power Rankings.
Landmark Christian at Our Lady of Mercy. Landmark is 3-2, 1-0 in Region 5, while Mercy is 4-1, 1-0. After a bit of a rough start, Landmark, last year’s state runners up, has won two in a row by a combined score of 90-10. The War Eagles are led by seniors Joshua Nobles (WR/DB) and Cole Higbie (RB/DB), both being recruited by smaller FBS schools. Mercy is on a mission to make its first ever appearance in the state playoffs in the third season under the leadership of head coach Mike Earwood, who will be after win No. 200 of his career on Friday. The Bobcats are led by seniors Rashard Fant (ATH) and Matt Frank (OL/DL), both of whom are being recruited by several FBS schools, and Chauncey Laboo (RB/LB), who will visit Wofford on Saturday.
Gordon Lee at Christian Heritage. Both teams are 4-1, 1-0 in Division A of subdivided Region 6. Gordon Lee has already reached its win total for each of the last two seasons when the Trojans went 4-6. In the team’s first season under the leadership of Charles Wiggins, Gordon Lee is looking to take another step toward earning a top seed in the region play-in game, Nov. 9. Christian Heritage, a private school in Dalton that opened its doors in 1986, is in its first full varsity season.