Proving once again that it really is a long season, four teams in Hall County have shaken off early-season losses to take an inside track in the race for the playoffs.
Gainesville, Flowery Branch, Chestatee and West Hall each suffered losses in their season openers — playing top-10 competition, Flowery Branch even lost its first two.
But after four weeks of football, none of those early troubles matter anymore. All four teams have now won at least two straight — Gainesville has won three in a row — and all are in position to make a run a playoff spot and more.
As preseason top-10 picks, Flowery Branch and Gainesville were both expected to be in this position. Chestatee and West Hall were lesser-known commodities, but both picked up crucial wins over fellow playoff contenders in their respective region openers Friday night.
The War Eagles (2-1, 1-0), who have scored 99 points in their last two games, are among four unbeaten teams in Region 8-AAAA. And other than Eastside (2-2, 0-1), which the War Eagles defeated 57-56 in double overtime Friday, the three teams behind Chestatee in the standings are a combined 1-11 on the season.
The War Eagles are getting it done on the ground in coach Stan Luttrell’s split-back veer offense. They ran for more than 500 yards against Eastside, led by Quan Clark’s 295 yards on 29 carries. Unofficially, Clark has run for 523 yards through three games, putting him among the area’s leaders.
West Hall (2-2, 1-0) jumped in the postseason discussion with a 33-20 win at Banks County (1-3, 0-1) on Friday. In what is expected to be a crowded field fighting for Region 7-AAA’s four playoff spots, West Hall is one of three teams sitting at 1-0; neither region favorite Buford or North Hall have played a region game yet.
The Spartans opened with two losses, including a 42-21 loss to Chestatee, but have since outscored their opponents 60-31. Sophomore running back Isaiah Rowe has emerged as a threat in the wins, topping 100 yards rushing in both wins. Junior fullback Antonio Pittman joined him over the century mark with 101 yards on 12 carries against Banks County.
On Friday, Chestatee faces a showdown at No. 5 Stephens County (4-0, 1-0), which is led by one of the state’s top running backs, Chaz Thornton, and averages 45.5 points per game.
West Hall will be taking on Fannin County (0-4, 0-1), Gainesville (3-1, 2-0) will meet fellow 8-AAAAA frontrunner Heritage (4-0, 2-0), and Flowery Branch (2-2, 2-0) will be at Salem (2-2, 1-1).
STICKING TO THE PLAN: Ball-control offense may have no stronger advocate than Commerce coach Marvin Justice.
The Tigers have long been a run-first offense and have had loads of success with it. But what they’re doing in the second half of games this season exceeds all expectations.
Entering Friday’s game, Commerce (4-0) had outrushed opponents 583-67 in the second half and had possession more than twice as long as its opponents. In a win over Jefferson to start the season, the Tigers held the ball for 10:41 in the fourth quarter, and against East Jackson they had it for 10:25 in the third quarter.
Friday’s win over a Rabun County team on the rise under new coach Lee Shaw, the coach at Flowery Branch through 2011, may have been the most impressive yet. Trailing by 11 to start the fourth quarter, Commerce drove 85 yards on 16 plays in about 8:30 to cut the lead to 17-12. Then, after recovering an onside kick, the Tigers methodically plodded 43 yards on 10 plays in just over three minutes to score the winning touchdown. All told, the dangerous Rabun County offense had just 19 seconds with the ball in the fourth quarter. Not surprisingly, the Tigers are now outscoring opponents 62-7 in the second half this year. They open Region 8-A play next week at George Walton Academy (3-1).
WATSON STAYS HOT: A week after completing all 18 of his passes against Winder-Barrow, Gainesville junior quarterback Deshaun Watson torched Apalachee, completing his first seven passes and 13 of his first 14 in leading the Red Elephants to a 49-0 lead at halftime.
He finished 17 of 20 for 294 yards. After an uneven first two weeks of the season, Watson, the Class AAA Offensive Player of the Year last fall, is now at 1,155 passing yards on the season while complete 78 of 108 passes (72 percent).