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Posted: Thursday, December 19th 2013 at 7:42pm

High School football 2013: Superlatives abound after another special season

By Morgan Lee Editor
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Buford's Joshua Thomas (1) runs for a touchdown in the Wolves' state title game victory in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
After letting it soak in for a few days we’ve finally had our chance to put the 2013 football season in perspective. With that in mind, we’re ready to hand out a few postseason ‘attaboys to some of the best things we saw from this past campaign...

TEAM OF THE YEAR: BUFORD -- It’s hard to pick against a team that won its ninth state championship in 13 seasons and dominated throughout the campaign. The Wolves rolled through most of the season, totaling the highest points scored in GHSA history (707), while allowing just 7.4 points per game. Yet the Wolves also showed they were more than just a front-runner, displaying plenty of grit and determination to come from behind in both their semifinal and championship contests. You want the definition of a complete team? This is it. Yes, the Wolves outclassed most opponents, but the fact that they had the gumption to dig deep when challenged and snag that title makes them a clear No. 1 in our book.

That said, there were a number of area teams that were worthy of this title and deserve honorable mention for outstanding seasons:

-- CHESTATEE: The War Eagles graduated or lost to injury their entire starting backfield but actually bettered last year’s breakout season, coming just a few plays away from upsetting Monroe Area to win Region 8-AAAA and claiming the program’s first-ever playoff victory. Chestatee proved the naysayers wrong time and again and showed that they are program to be reckoned with.

-- GAINESVILLE: Yes, the Red Elephants had the most talented player in the area if not the state and plenty of speed to burn, but Gainesville also had plenty of holes to fill from 2012’s historic championship team, including a defense that returned just a handful of experienced players. Yet the Red Elephants actually bettered their scoring output from a season ago and fashioned a defense that more than held its own against two of the most talented teams in the state (Tucker and M.L. King). The Red Elephants also got back to the semifinals for the third straight season and were tantalizingly close to another title game shot.

-- JEFFERSON: Like Gainesville, the Dragons had some holes to fill off of last season’s title-winning side. The biggest difference is that Jefferson replaced its all-star quarterback. And Bryant Shirreffs’ replacement -- younger brother Evan -- went down early in the season with an injury. Yet a strong running game, defense and back-up TJ Skelton got the Dragons to the state quarterfinals -- which, barring last year’s success, had not happened since 1977.

-- WEST HALL: The Spartans may not have the record of the previous four teams mentioned, but West Hall certainly came the farthest of any team in northeast Georgia, perhaps, the entire state, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and nearly knocking off then-No. 2-ranked Cartersville in the first round before falling 28-26. It was a reclamation project that should have plenty of area teams hopeful of what can be done with the right mix of coaching, talent and hard work.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- DESHAUN WATSON, quarterback, Gainesville -- The numbers alone boggle the mind and bear repeating: 3,745 yards passing, 1,057 yards rushing, 63 total touchdowns -- for most players that is a great career. For Watson it was his senior season. He also did all of this after Gainesville graduated two of his top four receivers from 2012 and installed new starters along the offensive line. Yet he still helped the Red Elephants to a region title and state semifinal berth, capping a career that we’ll not likely see again.

-- Korie Rogers, linebacker, Buford -- Anyone who watched the state title game and saw Rogers’ tackle for loss on fourth-and-1 with the game on the line saw just how explosive the middle linebacker was/is. And to lead a defense like Buford’s you’ve got to be something a bit special.

-- TJ Skelton, quarterback/receiver, Jefferson -- His stats aren’t gaudy (1,375 total yards, 22 total TDs), but to step in and take over as quarterback (when you had been playing receiver) and guide his team to several key victories speaks volumes about the young man’s ability, and, without him, the Dragons may not make the quarterfinals.

-- Andrew Smith, quarterback, North Hall -- The play-making quarterback/safety finished second on the team in rushing (1,057), second in tackles (66) and tops in touchdowns (18). A number of opponents will be glad to see him graduate.

-- Dalton Whitfield, running back/linebacker, White County -- The word “beast” comes to mind when thinking of the Warriors senior, who could take over a game from both sides of the ball. He played a key role in leading White County to the No. 2 seed from Region 7-AAA and the program’s second ever state playoff victory.

-- Charlie Woerner, running back/receiver/safety, Rabun County -- The sophomore followed up on an explosive rookie campaign that should have FBS coaches drooling. Blessed with size and speed, Woerner is also a playmaker and a ballhawk, and you can bet Region 8-AA foes wish he didn’t have two years left. He finished with 1,460 yards rushing, 417 yards receiving, 24 total TDs and 67.5 tackles.

GAME OF THE YEAR -- NORTH GWINNETT 50, MILL CREEK 47 -- and -- CHESTATEE 20, LANIER 17, 2OT –- OK, yes we’re waffling here, but we wanted to give two sides to the debate. There is the all-offense, last-team-with-the-ball-wins battle between the Bulldogs and Hawks. And then there is the defensive slugfest, special teams showdown between the War Eagles and Longhorns, which was just 7-7 after regulation. Both were thrilling in their own way -- it just depends on how you prefer your football.

-- Buford 24, Callaway 14 -- Buford pulled off a dominant second half performance to clinch a comeback win and a record seventh straight state title game appearance.

-- Dawson County 29, East Hall 27 -- The first game of the 2013 season for either team proved a thriller, coming down to the final three minutes to decide.

-- Gainesville 55, Flowery Branch 45 -- Gainesville looked set to pull away, but the Falcons made the Red Elephants sweat to earn the Region 8-AAAAA title.

-- Jefferson 26, Rabun County 20, OT -- The Dragons answered a fourth quarter deficit to force overtime and then went on to win and show they were not ready to be usurped for the No. 2 spot in Region 8-AA.

BIGGEST SURPRISE -- ZACH CHESHIRE, running back, Chestatee -- as Andrew Smith had already proved, if you judge a player based on size alone you risk embarrassing yourself, and Cheshire certainly made a few defenses look silly this season, as he took over the lead role in a War Eagles backfield that needed a spark after graduating or losing to injury more than 3,000 yards rushing from 2012. While plenty of other players played key roles for the War Eagles, Cheshire always found himself in the middle of the action, rushing for a team-high 1,241 yards and 16 TDs. And this from a back that rushed for just 12 yards last season. It was a lot of fun to watch the explosive Cheshire do his thing, and his ascension proved a big key for Chestatee.

-- HONORABLE MENTION: Commerce -- With a new head coach in Michael Brown, a longtime assistant prior to 2013, the Tigers put together their highest win total since 2009 and finished second in Region 8-A.

BIGGEST QUESTION LEFT UNANSWERED -- WHAT IF IT HAD NOT RAINED ON DEC. 6? -- We have never seen weather change a game quite like it did Gainesville’s Class AAAAA semifinal loss to Tucker. Playing in crisp conditions for the most of the night, the Red Elephants had battled the Tigers to a 14-14 standstill. True, Tucker had corralled Gainesville’s potent attack in the second half, but the Red Elephants had done similarly against the Tigers’ wing-T offense. Then, with about five minutes remaining, came a storm that literally saw rain coming down sideways, and, all of a sudden, a Tigers team that had struggled to run all night ripped off a dominant drive on the ground to take a lead they would not relinquish. Would Gainesville have found a way to win had Mother Nature not intervened? It will go down as one of the big questions in Red Elephants lore.

WHAT WE’LL MISS MOST ABOUT 2013 -- AN OUTSTANDING SENIOR CLASS -- There were so many players that provided us big moments in 2013, but it wasn’t just on the field where these players provided enjoyment. Often we just enjoyed talking to these players and getting to know them. The area's stars are getting more and more used to our cameras -- as are we -- and are enjoying themselves, and it's been fun to watch.

WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO MOST IN 2014 -- THE NEW REGION 8-AAAA -- We’re going to miss some of the old region set-ups but the 2014-15 football seasons could feature the best league in the state right here in our own backyard. With seven playoff teams from this year joining 8-AAAA next season (Buford, Chestatee, North Hall, Monroe Area, North Oconee, Stephens County and White County) it will present some mouth-watering match-ups on every week.

So that's the book on 2013. It was another great season, and coaches and players throughout northeast Georgia have plenty to be proud of. They showed that high school football in this section of the state is still as good as it is just about anywhere else -- in fact they did it so well we're already thinking about August 2014.
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