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Game of the Week: Dawson County, Greater Atlanta Christian pitted in Region 7-AAA title showdown
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Dawson County players react to recovering a fumbled punt return Friday night during the West Hall football game against Dawson County at West Hall High School. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Week 12 capsules

There’s two unbeaten region juggernauts, yet only one can emerge as the Region 7-AAA champion and No. 1 playoff seed.

When tonight’s game is all said and done, senior Luke Martin may have a hard time forgetting this one.
The starting linebacker and the eighth-ranked Dawson County Tigers await their shot at playing for their second-straight league title at Tiger Stadium, a feat never accomplished for the program.

Junior starting quarterback Coey Watson described the anticipation to be like entering a game and atmosphere equivalent to any high school sports movie he's watched.

“It’ll be the biggest regular season game in Dawson County history, honestly. “It’s just awesome,” said Martin, who averages 15 stops per game for the Tigers.

Martin could be right. The Tigers (7-1, 5-0 Region 7-AAA) — while having the chance to play in front of the Dawsonville community — have to go through top-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian (8-1, 5-0), and one of the nation’s top-rated quarterbacks, Davis Mills, in order to lock up the No. 1 playoff seed.

“We’ve just worked hard for this opportunity. It was one of our goals to get to this point in the season, to try to win the region title, to get to GAC and show everybody what we’re made of,” Martin added. “But it’s going to be a fun game, one that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. And we’re just excited about it.”

The Spartans are going for their seventh league title overall and first in Class AAA under fifth-year head coach Tim Hardy. This is the seventh meeting all-time for both programs, but the first since 2005.

It’s obvious what the Tigers have to do, and that’s find a way to corral a talented Spartan offense orchestrated by the No. 2 pro-rated passer in the country, Mills. The Spartans have averaged 49 points against region opponents. Mills (86 of 125 passing, 1,331 yards) has been the main gear of this high-powered offensive machine, throwing for 20 touchdowns — including a career-high, school-record six touchdowns against North Hall on Oct. 18 — with no picks to date.

The Tigers also haven’t forgotten his arsenal of weapons to choose from. Running back Kyler McMichael (957 yards, 12 TD) currently heads the Spartan backfield, while wideout Harrison Sloan (499 yards) has hauled in 10 of Mills’ scoring strikes. Mills has also connected with six other receivers for touchdowns.

Maxwell has also seen a thing or two in his 22-year coaching career with reputable programs like Sequoyah and Lambert. He has come across a few playmaking gems along the way as well, including current Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs, who played for Alpharetta.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to play against (Mills),” Maxwell said. “And the one thing about Dawson, though, they line up and play, and I don’t think they get in awe of who they’re playing.”

Maxwell quipped that while he may not be smart enough to come up with a system that can disrupt the rhythm of the Stanford-bound Mills, he hopes that the system itself — playing fundamentally sound football, isolate them in man coverage — will be enough to take care of it for him and the Tigers.

Watson looks forward to the task of suiting up against Mills, and plans to keep his teammates level headed throughout.

“This is not bigger than us, it’s not over our heads,” said Watson. “We know what we’re going into. We’re not gonna look at it as something we can’t handle. We’re gonna go into it with confidence. …Yes they’re very good, and you cannot look over how good they are, but we feel confident, and we feel like we can with play with any team.”

The Spartans aren’t the only team with a potent offense. The Tigers enter this matchup averaging 398 yards and 40 points a game behind Elite 11 passer Watson (1,995 total yards, 28 total TD).

They’ll look to match the offensive intensity against a Spartan defense that has only surrendered 13.2 points per contest this season.

“We’ve been able to run some points up and do some things this year,” Maxwell said. “We walked out with another private school last year in the Elite Eight with Blessed Trinity — didn’t fair too well with us. I think our guys, as we grow into the program, these challenges, you learn from each one you go into and each important game that you play in, the chance to build that competitive character.”

The Spartans boast a 5-1 record against the Tigers heading into the championship. But a lot has changed in that hiatus. Maxwell has played a big role in changing the culture at Dawson County in his two years at the helm.

Unlike last season, in which the Tigers locked down their first-ever regular season title in blowout fashion against Lumpkin County in Week 9, this game packs a little more emotion. The championship takes place on the Tigers’ final home game of the regular season, on the team’s Senior Night.

“It’s definitely gonna be emotional. I grew up playing with these guys, my family. I love these boys as much as my family,” Watson said. “It’s 30-plus seniors, and it’s gonna be weird playing without them. But we’re gonna give it the best run we’ve got while we got them.”

After all these years, nothing has truly dictated Maxwell’s approach to the game. The Tigers’ focus remains on themselves, and going after it with the sense of toughness preached by the team ever since a double-overtime loss to West Hall in Week 5.

“You know, we love the opportunity to play for a region championship, and are fortunate to get to Game 10. You know, you got a solid lock on the playoffs, guaranteed home field and the opportunity to play for a region championship doesn’t really get any better than that for Game 10.”

No matter the outcome, Maxwell is confident his guys will play for each other and go after it with a great sense of purpose.

“It’s gonna be a battle for all four quarters,” Martin said. “They aren’t ranked No. 1 for no reason. We gotta continue to play tough. We’re ready for it. ...We gotta stay level headed, keep playing our game, and give our glory to God.”

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