GHSA state championships
Class A, Prince Avenue Christian vs. Eagle’s Landing Christian, 2:30 p.m.
Class AAA, Buford vs. St. Pius, 5:30 p.m.
Class AAAAA, Gainesville vs. Ware County, 8:30 p.m.
Class A Public, Dooly County vs. Emanuel County Institute, 11:30 a.m.
Class AA, Calhoun vs. Jefferson, 2:30 p.m.
Class AAAA, Ridgeland vs. Sandy Creek, 5:30 p.m.
Class AAAAAA, Lovejoy vs. Norcross, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $18 presale at schools, $20 from Ticketmaster and at gate
JEFFERSON — Wesley Simonton started thinking about the possibility the day after the Jefferson Dragons held off Fitzgerald 53-51 in triple overtime to earn a trip to the state semifinals.
“After we beat Fitzgerald I was sitting at home Saturday thinking, we’re in the final four,” the Dragons senior linebacker said. “We win this and we’re in the (Georgia) Dome.”
Jefferson coach T McFerrin is quick to point out that there was no overlooking semifinal opponent Greater Atlanta Christian, but that quarterfinal win was, nonetheless, another of the games that have defined the Dragons’ most successful season since last reaching the state finals in 1977. The Dragons cruised past Greater Atlanta Christian 42-14 to earn that state title game berth Simonton so eagerly desired.
Jefferson faces Calhoun in the Class AA state championship game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
It’s a season that has included another standout year from senior, dual-threat quarterback Bryant Shirreffs (1,233 yards rushing, 2,181 passing) leading a balanced offense, and another year of dominance by a defense, led by Simonton, that has allowed nine opponents to 10 points or less.
It’s also a season that began with a crushing defeat to Jackson County rival Commerce.
“I think it shocked everybody,” McFerrin said. “These players had always beaten Commerce.
“I think it woke the players up.”
At the next practice Simonton said the players got together and vowed to not let the 22-7 loss be the theme of the season.
“Ever since that we’ve been clicking,” he said.
Simonton, who has a team-high 181 tackles, and the rest of the defense has played a large roll in the 13-game winning streak.
The Dragons turned around after the Commerce loss and held another county rival, Jackson County High, to just six points, and rallied in the fourth quarter past North Hall at The Brickyard, an eventual semifinal team in Class AAA, 27-21.
The win over the Trojans was another of the victories McFerrin points to as a key.
“That was a huge win for us,” he said. “It gave us confidence and took away most of the sting from the Commerce loss.”
Two games after that, the Dragons shut out expected region title contenders Washington-Wilkes 31-0, an outcome McFerrin said made the team realize that winning the region was a distinct possibility. It was also another signature game for the defense, and the lone shutout in a season of solid play.
“It’s been a team effort,” McFerrin said.
In the end, Jefferson didn’t play a team that didn’t failed to reach the postseason until the seventh game of the season, defeating teams at all ends of the spectrum by wide margins.
It wasn’t until the third round of the playoffs that Jefferson was finally tested again, but by surviving the triple-overtime thriller, the Dragons saw just what they stood to accomplish.
“I said, ‘I want you to have the Dome experience,” McFerrin remembered telling the players before their semifinal game, “and to do that we’ve got to win this game.’
“I told them it’s an experience they’ll never forget.”
The Dragons went out and crushed Greater Atlanta Christian with the defense recording three sacks, two turnovers and a pair of key fourth down stops.
It was those stops that Simonton wanted to see out of the defense.
“That’s what great defenses do,” he said. “When they get backed up against the wall they step up.”
Simonton, who McFerrin said is a little undersized for a linebacker at 6-foot, 205-pounds, also leads the team with 7 1/2 sacks and 26 tackles for loss. He’s part of a linebacker tandem, along with Kody McDonald (166 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and four sacks), that has led the way for a defensive unit that has thrived playing tough, assignment football.
“The only reason we’ve been successful is that players stick to their assignments and our willingness to hit,” Simonton said. “It’s all about being disciplined.”
He added that, to play with Class AA defending state champions Calhoun (14-0) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Atlanta, the Dragons will have to stick with what’s got them this far.
“This team has stayed focused,” added McFerrin, who last played in the state finals in 1995 with Elbert County.
“They’re a great group of overachievers.”