A playoff journey that began a month ago with nearly 200 teams will conclude today and Saturday with seven championship games.
There’ll be three games today, and four more on Saturday, and all games will be broadcast live on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Among the games Saturday will be the championship showdown in Class AAAA between the Ridgeland Panthers and the Sandy Creek Patriots.
Those two teams will meet at 5:30 p.m. in the third of four games on Saturday.
Sandy Creek has been the state’s top-ranked team since Day 1, and it has dominated every team it has played this season, including LaGrange and Troup on the way to the Region 5-AAAA championship.
In the semifinals, the Patriots crunched Monroe Area 35-0 to earn a chance to win a third championship in four seasons.
Standing in Sandy Creek’s way is a Ridgeland team that, before this season, had never even made it past the second round of the state playoffs.
Ridgeland edged Marist 28-27 in the semifinals to reach the final game.
The Panthers, who beat LaGrange 41-34 in the second round, have reached this point with a powerful rushing attack that has proven unstoppable in the playoffs.
In the Marist game, Ridgeland went 77 yards in 10 plays for the winning touchdown, and running back Darrell Bridges accounted for everyone of those yards, including a 7-yard pickup on a fourth-and-two play.
Bridges has run for 2,301 yards with an astounding 39 touchdowns.
“It’s really special to me to know that the coaches have that much faith in me to put the ball in my hands that many times and in key situations for us,” Bridges told the newspaper in Chattanooga. “The coaches had said when the playoffs started that they would lean on me more, and that’s just what I wanted. We have a lot of other weapons, and I have faith that anybody that carries the ball for us can make big plays. But as a senior, I do want the ball in my hands in crunch time, because I believe in my abilities.”
In today’s first game at 2:30 p.m., Prince Avenue (11-2) and Eagles Landing Christian Academy (12-1) will meet to determine the Class A private-school championship.
At 5:30 p.m., it’ll be the Class AAA championship showdown between longtime powerhouse Buford (11-3) and St. Pius (12-2).
Buford, which had to replace 30 seniors and 20 starters from last year’s state runnerup team, is in a familiar position as one of the last two teams standing.
“It’s just been a group of guys who have refused to give up,” Buford head coach Jess Simpson said. “We’ve been tested and we’ve been energized by it. This one of the most exciting teams I’ve coached in a long time.”
In today’s third and final game, Ware County (13-1) and Gainesville (11-3) will meet for the Class AAAAA championship.
Gainesville is led by junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is just 16 yards away from setting the career passing record (9,062) in Georgia.
Watson remembers being an observer the last time Gainesville was in the state-championship game.
The Red Elephants lost that game.
“It’s very exciting. The last time we went I was in the eighth grade and I was in the stands watching, and I told myself that I wanted to get to the state championship, and now I am,” Watson told the newspaper in Gainesville. “I wasn’t really focused on the record, I was just trying to get the victory. Now next week I can accomplish that in an even bigger game.”
On Saturday, the action gets under way at 11:30 a.m. when Dooly County (11-2) and Emanuel County Institute (12-1) meet in the Class A public-school championship game.
At 2:30 p.m., Jefferson (13-1) and Calhoun (14-0) face off in the Class AA title game.
Calhoun is in the championship game for the fifth straight season, but this will be the first time it hasn’t faced Buford for the title.
The Yellow Jackets won the Class AA championship a year ago.
“It’s unbelievable for us to be playing for a state title for the fifth year in a row,” Calhoun head coach Hal Lamb said. “It says a lot about Calhoun football.
“This community deserves everything they get. We’ve got the total picture here with the community and administration’s support and the players and coaches that work so hard. I’m just pleased to be a part of it.”
At 5:30 p.m., Sandy Creek and Ridgeland will square off, and Lovejoy (13-1) and Norcross (14-0) will wrap things up in the Class AAAAAA championship game at 8:30 p.m.
Class A (private)
Prince Avenue (11-2) vs. ELCA (12-1)
Buford (11-3) vs. St. Pius (12-2)
Ware County (13-1) vs. Gainesville (11-3)
Class A (public)
Dooly County (11-2) vs. ECI (12-1)
Jefferson (13-1) vs. Calhoun (14-0)
Sandy Creek (14-0) vs. Ridgeland (13-1)
Lovejoy (13-1) vs. Norcross (14-0)