By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here’s the AJC.com Class A Blog Divided Top 5 (overall AJC/Georgia High School Football Daily ranking in parenthesis), along with this week’s top 16 in the Georgia High School Association/MaxPreps Power Rankings, public and private, and a link to the full lists. As always, last week’s power ranking for each team is in parenthesis, and a list of teams that dropped out of the coveted to 16 is at the bottom of the list.
This week’s “Coach Speak” features No. 5 Marion County’s Mike Swaney, who is building a program that will be one to reckon with for years to come.
1. Seminole County (3) (8-0, 4-0). Seminole County manhandled Raldolph-Clay (3-5, 2-3), 56-21 last week. Next up is a trip to Colquitt for a tough game against Miller County (4-5, 3-2) on Friday, before Seminole County hosts Mitchell County (6-3, 5-0) next week to decide the Region 1 champion.
2. Marion County (5) (8-0, 5-0). The Eagles beat up Brookstone (5-3, 2-3), 39-14 and can either win or share the Region 4 title for the fourth consecutive season with a win at Hawkinsville (5-3, 3-2) on Friday.
3. Johnson County (4) (8-0, 3-0). The Trojans romped over former No. 8 Emanuel County Institute (5-3, 2-1) last week, 65-29, to essentially wrap up the Region 3 – Division B title. JoCo travels to Alamo to take on Wheeler County (3-5, 2-1) in the regular season finale before next week’s region cross over games.
4. Clinch County (7) (5-3, 4-0). The Panthers won their fourth in a row last week in convincing fashion, 34-7 over rival Charlton County (5-3, 3-1), to assume command of Region 2. Clinch County will visit Lakeland to take on Lanier County (2-7, 1-4) on Friday.
5. Commerce (NR) (6-3, 4-1). The Tigers trounced Hebron Christian Academy (2-6, 1-5) 48-12, and will take a week off before closing out the regular season at Pinecrest Academy (5-3, 3-2), Nov. 8.
Another half dozen to watch: Dooly County (5-3, 4-1), Emanuel County Institute (5-3, 2-1), Hawkinsville (5-3, 3-2), Irwin County (6-1-1, 3-1), Lincoln County (4-2, 3-1), Mitchell County (5-3, 4-0).
1. Marion County (1)
2. Seminole County (2)
3. Clinch County (5)
4. Johnson County (4)
5. Irwin County (6)
6. Charlton County (3)
7. Emanuel County Institute (7)
8. Dooly County (11)
9. Lincoln County (10)
(Tie) 10. Commerce (8)
(Tie) 10. Trion (9)
12. Mitchell County (12)
13. Hawkinsville (13)
14. Gordon Lee (14)
15. Claxton (15)
16. Terrell County (NR)
Who Fell Out: Turner County (16)
1. Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy (1) (7-0, 4-0). The Chargers dominated Strong Rock (2-6, 0-4), 46-6, last week. ELCA hosts Pace Academy (4-4, 1-3) on Friday. A win would set up the game of the year in Class A next week – undefeated ELCA at undefeated Landmark Christian.
2. Aquinas (2) (8-0, 4-0). The Irish took another step toward clinching the Region 7 championship last week with a 42-14 win over Warren County (0-7, 0-5). Aquinas hosts Georgia Military (3-5, 3-3) on Friday.
3. Prince Avenue Christian (9) (7-1, 4-0). The Wolverines were off last week. A win over Pinecrest Academy (5-3, 3-2) at home Friday will give PAC its second Region 8 title in three seasons.
4. Landmark Christian (6) (8-0, 4-0). The War Eagles had a bye last week, and head to north Atlanta Friday to face Holy Innocents (5-4, 3-2).
5. Mount Pisgah Christian (8) (8-0, 4-0). The Patriots pulled out a 28-24 win over previous No. 9 Mount Paran (6-2, 3-1) last week, taking a huge step toward winning the program’s first region title. Mt. Pisgah will host Fellowship Christian (5-3, 2-2) on Friday.
Another half dozen to watch: Calvary Day (6-2, 4-0), Christian Heritage (6-2, 2-1), Darlington (7-1, 4-0), First Presbyterian Day (5-3, 4-1), George Walton Academy (5-3, 2-2), Mount Paran Christian (6-2, 3-1).
1. Mount Pisgah Christian (3)
(Tie) 2. Darlington (1)
(Tie) 2. Landmark (2)
4. Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy (4)
5. Mount Paran Christian (6)
6. Aquinas (5)
7. Calvary Day School (10)
8. Prince Avenue Christian (8)
9. Christian Heritage (7)
10. George Walton Academy (11)
11. Brookstone (12)
12. Athens Academy (NR)
13. St. Anne-Pacelli (9)
14. First Presbyterian Day (14)
15. Holy Innocents’ (NR)
16. Our Lady of Mercy (13)
Who Fell Out: Pace Academy (15), King’s Ridge Christian (16)
Coach Speak: Marion County’s Mike Swaney.
When asked to name the Class A program other than defending private school champion Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy that is 38-6 since 2010 with a least a share of a region title in each of the previous three seasons, several names probably come to mind: Lincoln County. Landmark Christian School. Seminole County.
None of those is correct. The answer is Marion County, where Mike Swaney and his staff are quietly building one of the state’s most consistently successful programs, just east of Columbus in Buena Vista – birthplace of baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson.
“I’d say we’re probably a little ahead of schedule, and have exceeded expectations a bit,” said Swaney, now in his fourth season. “This summer we had about 115 kids consistently participating in workouts at the school. We have 86 kids in our middle school program and 55 on our varsity. When you have those numbers, you’ve got a real shot to be successful, especially in Class A.
“It’s amazing how much the kids have bought in and how hard they’ve worked, and our coaches do a great job,” Swaney said. “And the community has gotten behind the program and the support has been tremendous.”
An example of that support was on full display last week when the Eagles traveled over to Columbus to face a Brookstone team that upset them last season, preventing them from winning the Region 4 title outright. Students filled up two charter busses and tons of other supporters from the town of a little over 2,000 packed into the visitors’ section to watch Marion County dismantle the Cougars 39-14.
“The whole town is excited. Our [home] gates have been incredible and when we go on the road the folks are there, too,” Swaney said. “It’s really something to see and it really motivates the kids. I tell them these folks are here to see you. They didn’t come to see me or the other coaches or the band. They came to see you and so you owe them your best effort.”
The loss last year at home to Brookstone, a game in which his team didn’t come with its best effort, according to Swaney, has served as the catalyst for this season. Marion County had just come off of an emotional win over eventual public school runner-up Dooly County (12-7) the week before, while Brookstone struggled to defeat a Schley County team (35-27) that won just two games all season.
“Our kids were listening to people telling them that and reading about that stuff, and they took Brookstone for granted,” Swaney said. “Before we knew it we were down 21-0 in the first half. We came back and made a game of it (35-28) but we couldn’t pull it out.”
The loss eventually cost the Eagles a higher seed in the public school playoffs, and put them on a course to meet Wilcox County and the record-setting quarterback-receiver duo of Makail Grace (now at Garden City Community College in Kansas) and Jonathan Howard (now at North Carolina).
“Those two were amazing,” Swaney said of the tandem that led the Patriots to a 39-21 win over Marion County. “We fought as hard as we could but [Wilcox County] was just a little better than we were.”
This season the Eagles are focused on making it out of the second round of the post season, which would be another first for the program. Marion County is presently No. 1 in the public school GHSA/MaxPreps power rankings.
“The kids don’t fully understand it, so we’ve tried to explain to them how it works,” Swaney said. “Last season they couldn’t understand how we beat Dooly County at their place and they still ended up rated higher than we were even though we finished with the same record (8-2). That higher seed helped [Dooly] a little and hurt us. But it taught us that you can’t take any of your opponents for granted.”
It is a mantra that is repeated daily by the team’s 16 seniors, led by all-state kicker A.J. Wells, LB Brandon Green (6-0, 210), a three-year starter, and C Dustin Pickren (5-11, 180). Senior RB Johnny Royal (6-0, 185) is on course to gain more than 1,500 yards and sophomore Lorenzo Smothers (5-8, 155) is the Eagles’ game breaker.
“[The seniors] are the kids who were freshmen when we came here,” Swaney said. “It’s a special group of kids and it’s been fun coaching them and watching them grow up.”