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Thackham: Breaking down the area high school football first-round playoff games
Expect Gainesville, North Hall, West Hall to face tough matchups in opening round of state tourneys
Gainesville High's Rodarious Timmons (6) looks for running room Friday night after hauling in a pass for the Red Elephants during the first half of their game with Flowery Branch at City Park Stadium.

First-round games



Gainesville vs. Alexander

Class AAAA

North Hall at Sandy Creek

No. 3 Buford vs. Fayette County

Class AAA

Dawson County vs. Ringgold

East Hall vs. Sonoraville

West Hall at No. 1 Calhoun

Jefferson vs. Pepperell

In the space of three minutes, David Presnell went from planning security in the case of a field invasion to celebrating a breathtaking last-minute touchdown.

It was a long night for Presnell, the athletic fields manager for the Gainesville City Schools. And if the Gainesville High Red Elephants have anything to say about it, he’ll be protecting the turf at City Park Stadium for weeks to come.

“I was down there, right on the 5-yard line where (Rodarious Timmons) was,” said Presnell of Gainesville’s game-clinching touchdown Friday night, which gave the home team a 29-26 win over rival Flowery Branch. “I can’t really describe the feeling. It was from worry to excitement.”

Presnell said he met with local police patrolling the stadium prior to Gainesville’s final offensive drive to put together a plan in case the Flowery Branch student section stormed the field in the event of a Falcons win.

Luckily for Presnell, that didn’t happen.

“At that point, there was too many of them, it was always going to be tough to stop them,” he said.

Welcome to the passion of the high school state playoffs in Georgia.

Where every game is win-or-go-home, area teams will be pulling out all the stops to extend their seasons all the way until they reach a spot in the coveted championship game this December at the Georgia Dome.

In Class AAAAA, Gainesville (7-3) will tackle Alexander (8-2) in the hopes of reaching the second round for the eighth straight year.

In Class AAAA, defending state champion Buford (9-1) squares up against Fayette County (3-7), while North Hall visits Sandy Creek in Tyrone.

And in Class AAA, Dawson County, East Hall and Jefferson all have home games, while West Hall travels to face top-ranked Calhoun.

Gainesville vs. Alexander

HOW DID THEY GET HERE?: Despite dropping back-to-back region games to Lanier and Clarke Central, the Red Elephants are back to full health and are growing stronger as the first round nears. Gainesville has overcome losing several key players on their offensive and defensive line, as well as starters in the secondary, but should be mentally and physically prepared to tackle the visiting Cougars. Gainesville is on a three-game winning streak, and has shown fight in wins over Winder-Barrow and Loganville.

Alexander is currently 4-1 on the road this season, including close battles against New Manchester, East Paulding and Chapel Hill, all of which were decided within 7 points. The Phoenix lost to No. 8 Allatoona 35-14.

HOW CAN GAINESVILLE WIN?: The Cougars have given up almost 22 points per game so far, which means this might turn into a shootout. Gainesville should rely on quarterback Messiah Dorsey to make smart decisions on when to turn a pass play into an opportunity to run. That, plus heavy doses of Chris Byrd, will give the Red Elephants an edge on offense. And don’t forget about Gainesville’s secondary, which has 15 interceptions on the season.

East Hall vs. Sonoraville

HOW DID THEY GET HERE?: It’s been quite a wild ride for East Hall and coach Bryan Gray. The Vikings started the season at 1-4, but are currently riding the wave of a five-game winning streak. Statement wins against Franklin County, Fannin County and Banks County prove that East Hall’s offense has improved in leaps and bounds. The Vikings (6-4) averaged nearly 40 points a game in the last three weeks of the regular season.

Sonoraville is also on a hot streak of its own. The Phoenix won their final three games, and managed to finish with a No. 3 seed in a difficult region, which includes top-ranked Calhoun.

HOW CAN EAST HALL WIN? As long as Austin Parker can stay upright, there’s no reason to believe East Hall can’t handle their business. The quarterback has thrown for 21 touchdowns so far this season. Wide receivers Markese Jackson and Jacquen Hopkins have combined for 19 of those scores. According to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, East Hall hasn’t made it to the second round of the state playoffs since 1993.

West Hall at No. 1 Calhoun

HOW DID THEY GET HERE?: As late as Oct. 16, West Hall (5-5) looked destined to go from first to worst in Region 7-AAA. Oh, how things change. Thanks to a three-game win streak to end the season, combined with some fortunate results elsewhere in the region, the Spartans will be in the playoffs for the third straight year. They turned around a five-game skid in the middle of the season with a stunning double-overtime win at Fannin County before finding narrow wins over Banks County and Lumpkin County.

Calhoun has done what they did all last season: Dominate from the opening kickoff onwards. The defending state champions are undefeated again, with three shutouts to their credit. The Tigers have also put 70 points on their opponent twice.

HOW CAN WEST HALL WIN?: Is it time already for “Kick-Six, Part 3?”

Dawson County vs. Ringgold

HOW DID THEY GET HERE? There probably isn’t any more fascinating turnaround story this year than Dawson County, who earned its first region title after finishing dead last in 2014. First-year coach Sid Maxwell has turned a talented group of individuals into an efficient scoring machine. The Tigers (7-3) have scored at least 35 points per game four times this season, and even pulled off shutouts against three region opponents.

Ringgold is on a downslide since reaching the Class AAA semifinals back in 2013, but they can still be a threat to put up points. The visiting Tigers are averaging 40 points per game in each of their wins so far this year.

HOW CAN DAWSON COUNTY WIN? As long as Hunter Mitchell suits up on Friday, Dawson County (7-3) should have no trouble brushing past Ringgold. The senior rushed for four touchdowns and 189 yards against Lumpkin County to clinch his team’s region title. Mitchell, a converted cornerback, has been an integral part of the offense ever since he took over the running back position due to injuries.

North Hall at Sandy Creek

HOW DID THEY GET HERE?: North Hall’s route to the playoffs has been as uncomplicated as its offense. The Trojans simply win the games that they need to win. And their leading running back, Kyle Bacus, is a big reason why. The junior tailback (826 yards, seven rushing TDs) is the most explosive element of coach David Bishop’s Wing-T offense, which is averaging 215 yards a game. So far, North Hall (6-4) has put together strong games against Stephens County, North Oconee and Madison County.

Sandy Creek has a shutdown defense, and will look to limit Bacus and his teammates on Friday. The Fighting Patriots have kept opposing offenses to seven points or less in seven games so far this season. Sandy Creek has made the state quarterfinals each years since 2009, and has won the state championship three times since then.

HOW CAN NORTH HALL WIN?: The Trojans are very good at controlling possession and bleeding out the clock with the lead. They’ll have to be on the top of their game against Sandy Creek, who makes very few mistakes. The Fighting Patriots currently have 19 sacks on the season, with 14 interceptions.

No. 3 Buford vs. Fayette County

HOW DID THEY GET HERE?: Despite a hiccup against McEachern, Buford (9-1) is right back where it was last season: At the top of Region 8-AAAA, and hungry for yet another state title. The Wolves have scored at least 42 points in their last seven games, and held opposing offense to just 18 points in those wins.

Fayette County is lucky to be in the postseason at all. The Tigers have won just three times all year, all over teams with losing records.

HOW CAN BUFORD WIN?: Buford need simply show up to Tom Riden Stadium to win this matchup. Roll on to the second round.

Jefferson vs. Pepperell

HOW DID THEY GET HERE?: Jefferson is here, thanks to one amazing talent in sophomore running back Colby Wood. Wood has already broken the school record for single-season rushing yards (1,950). The Dragons (9-1) are no slouches on defense, and have pitched three shutouts against North Hall, Morgan County and East Jackson. They picked themselves back up from a double-overtime loss to Oconee County, before topping Hart County Friday to earn the No. 2 seed.

Pepperell’s last two wins come against teams with losing records. The team won five straight in the middle of the season, but finished the year going 2-2. The Dragons gave up 22 points to Chestatee earlier this season.

HOW CAN JEFFERSON WIN?: Handing off the ball to Wood will be the key here. He currently has 26 of Jefferson’s 35 touchdowns.

David Thackham is a sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at or at @DThackham on Twitter. 

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