Banks County came within one point of winning subregion 8A-AA, but was able to salvage second place. Dawson County started the season 1-6, but closed with two straight 8A-AA wins to grab third place in the subregion.
Come Friday, both teams have the chance, with a win, to qualify for the Class AA state playoffs when they square off with an 8B-AA opponent in play-in games.
The Leopards (6-2) are a No. 2 seed and will travel to Hart County (5-3-1), the No. 3 seed out of 8B-AA. The No. 3-seeded Tigers (3-6) will travel to No. 2 seed North Oconee (8-1). Both games are at 7:30 p.m.
Last Friday, Banks County beat East Hall 53-28 to finish 3-1 in the subregion and rebound from a 13-12 loss to Fannin County the week before. Had the Leopards beaten Fannin County, they would have clinched the subregion title and a guaranteed playoff berth.
Instead, they now must win their crossover game — a task that could prove difficult.
In the regular season, each 8-AA team (except North Oconee) played region crossover games. In those games, 8B-AA went 4-2 and outscored its opposition 175-54, with the subregion’s only losses coming from Oglethorpe County and Jackson County — two teams with a combined region record of 1-11.
Hart County won its crossover game 33-6 over Union County (the Leopards beat Union County 27-0). The Bulldogs are also one of the subregion's five state playoff teams from 2009 as an AAA school.
Leopards running back Dylan Lackey, who scored six touchdowns last week against the Vikings, has confidence Banks County can win.
“If we play the way we played (on Friday), we can play with anybody,” he said.
Leopards coach Blair Armstrong said the team has momentum heading into the play-in game.
“We’ve gotten better since the season started and last week I saw improvement in effort and execution,” he said. “If we can improve again, I feel like we can compete. Hart County is a good team though, so we’ll have to bring our ‘A’ game. If we do that, the game will be very competitive.”
Hart County runs a wide-open offense based out of the I-formation, and also lines up in the spread. Armstrong said strong quarterback play, good running backs and receivers and decent size up front makes the Bulldogs a tough, physical football team.
“As far as talent, this is the best team we’ve played all year,” Armstrong said.
Coincidentally, Armstrong scouted Hart County earlier in the season during the Leopards’ bye week. With everyone else in the subregion also off, he said he chose the Hart County-North Oconee game because he’d never seen the Bulldogs before. Also, they were playing a former Banks County nemesis in the Titans, which last year beat them 47-0.
He was hoping the Bulldogs would win, but the Titans prevailed 28-16.
For the Leopards to win Friday, Armstrong will rely on the 1-2 punch of Lackey and Jeremy Greenway, who are running backs in Banks County’s wing-T offense. The two combined for 347 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last week.
“I always feel like we’ve got the chance to win any game,” Armstrong said. “Anything can happen if you show up ready to play.
“We’ll show up.”
Dawson County, on the other hand, has the much more difficult task of facing the same Titans team Armstrong saw earlier in the season. Tigers coach Jeff Lee is approaching the game with the belief his team could possibly upset North Oconee.
He feels the Tigers have nothing to lose after going 1-9 last year.
“I feel confident,” he said. “We have progressed and have been playing with confidence. We’ll be ready. I tell our staff and our kids we’re not asking them to play 10 games, we’re asking them to play one. If you win, great — we go on to Week 11. If not, we won three of our last six and that’s an improvement. That’s something to build on.”
Lee credits his sophomore-laden squad and its maturity as the season progressed for the reason the Tigers are still in the hunt. Last year as freshmen, they were thrust into the starting lineup in the seventh game of the season, once it was clear they would not be competing for a playoff spot.
The Tigers have been progressing since that point, and now sophomores like quarterback Tyler Dominy, running backs Zach Martin and Jacob Pickleseim, receiver Bruce Clark, and linemen Cale Tallant, Will Anglin and Harley Vaughn are contributing in big ways.
Now they’re up against the biggest test of the season, though they aren’t going in unprepared. During the offseason in July, the Tigers participated in the same camp with North Oconee. Dawson County and the Titans played two 7-on-7 games and split them.
Lee remembers the two teams getting “heated” at times.
“(Our players) want to play those guys again,” he said. “(North Oconee) may spank us, but I like where we’re at, our mind set and what we’re doing.”