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Putnam: Every team has something to be thankful for at Thanksgiving
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Thanksgiving is a time to show appreciation for what you have, no matter how much, how little, or how it compares to others.

A handful of local football programs have been blessed with the opportunity to not only win a state title this year, but to repeat as state champions.

Although Gainesville, Buford and Jefferson may have the most to be thankful for as they prepare for their state quarterfinal matchups tomorrow night, each of the area’s teams can find something to be grateful for — even under the most difficult of circumstances.

With that in mind, here’s our list.

Banks County: A history of resilience. No team wants to suffer through a winless season as the Leopards did this year, but the program has shown the ability to bounce back and deliver winning seasons after previous lean years. Most recently, Banks County went 7-3 in 2010 after finishing just 2-8 in 2009.

Buford: An opportunity to be the best of the best. This group of Wolves is special, even by the program’s own lofty standards. Buford has a chance to go a perfect 15-0 for the first time since 2008 and could challenge the state’s all-time scoring record.

Chestatee: A postseason breakthrough. The War Eagles didn’t allow past slip-ups in the state playoffs, or a brutal start to this year’s postseason opener, to stop them from making history this year. Chestatee outscored Grady 41-0 after falling behind by 13 points and cruised to the program’s first win in the state playoffs. The War Eagles finished the season a program-best 9-3 record.

Commerce: The ability to right the ship. Despite making their 16th consecutive postseason appearance in 2012, the Tigers lost six of their final seven games. Commerce’s hopes of making a 17th straight trip to the playoffs seemed in doubt when the team opened the 2013 season with a 40-0 loss to rival Jefferson, but the team responded by winning seven of its next nine games and returning to the postseason.

Dawson County: A chance to be head of the class. After narrowly missing a second straight trip to the playoffs, Dawson seems well-positioned for the future as the largest school in the newly-aligned Class AAA next season. Even better for the Tigers, three of the four teams who finished above them in the Region 7-AAA standings are moving up to Class AAAA.

East Hall: An emerging star. The mantle of “best quarterback in the area” may belong to another D. Watson once Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson leaves for Clemson University following the 2013 season. Vikings junior signal caller Devin Watson finished the regular season ranked fifth in the state in passing yards (2,478) and also boasts the ability to create big plays with his legs.

Flowery Branch: Young talent capable of shouldering the load. The Falcons will need new standouts to step up and fill the void left by several key, departing seniors, including starting quarterback Jackson McDonald. Flowery Branch could rely more on the ground game next season, where freshman running back Jeremiah Goss emerged as a big-play threat in 2013. Goss ran for 192 yards on only 10 carries in the season finale against Gainesville.

Gainesville: One more run with Deshaun. Gainesville had become a powerhouse before Deshaun Watson started taking snaps for the Red Elephants, but the superstar quarterback helped the program get over the hump last season and secure its first state championship in the Georgia High School Association. Local fans may never see another high school player near the same level as Watson, the state’s all-time leading passer, and another deep playoff run is providing a fitting end to his prep career.

Habersham Central: Better days ahead. The Raiders were essentially thrown to the Wolves over the past two years, going 1-19 overall and winless this season while stuck in a region otherwise populated by Gwinnett County titans. The pending reclassification process offers Habersham Central hope of being moved to a different region, but if the Raiders remain in 7-AAAAAA they will at least be better prepared for what they’ll face.

Jackson County: The start of a new tradition. Benji Harrison made a big splash in his first season as coach of the Panthers in 2012, leading the program to its first state playoff appearance in two decades. Jackson County returned to the postseason again this year with the help of another big season from wide receiver Xavier Harper (1,014 receiving yards), establishing a good foundation for future success.

Jefferson: Continued success under new leadership. First-year coach Ben Hall has picked up right where T McFerrin left off when he retired last year, leading the Dragons back to the state quarterfinals on the heels of their 2012 Class AA state title win. Most recently, Jefferson can be thankful for its hard-fought 61-57 victory over Heard County last week in the second round.

Johnson: A chance to show that 2013 wasn’t a step backward. The Knights fell to 2-8 this season following a successful 6-4 campaign in 2012, Jason Roquemore’s first year as coach. Ideally, a successful rebuilding process translates into more wins each season, but it doesn’t always work out that way. A program can still be headed in the right direction even if it doesn’t show in the win-loss column, and the 2014 season will give a better barometer of Johnson’s progress.

Lakeview Academy: Bright spots in a big rebuilding year. The Lions lost 17 seniors from their 2012 team, a crushing blow for a program with only 27 players on the roster. Although the scoreboard often reflected the turnover in personnel, Lakeview did post two lopsided victories — a 42-0 win over Cross Keys and a 42-7 thumping of North Cobb Christian.

Lumpkin County: Seniors who saved their best for last. At the end of a tough 2-8 campaign, Indians quarterback Daniel McCrary and wide receiver Johnathan Gilreath capped their careers at Lumpkin County by setting single-game passing and receiving records in the team’s 31-28 upset win over Stephens County.

North Hall: A consistently strong program. Coach Bob Christmas has molded North Hall into a program that expects to contend for a playoff spot and more, year in, year out. The Trojans should be right back in the mix next season, even as they face a move to Class AAAA without many key players from their 2013 squad.

Riverside Military: Significant progress. Coach Gary Downs’ first full offseason with the Eagles paid big dividends down the stretch, as Riverside tallied as many wins in 2013 (five) as it did in the three previous seasons combined. The program took a great step forward this season with the help of quarterback Collin Pettell (2,039 passing yards) and receiver Raleigh Beougher (1,007 receiving yards).

Towns County: Another strong finish. After winning three of their last four games in 2012, the Indians delivered victories in four of their final five games this season. No easy feat for a small, mountain-area school.

Union County: An impressive sophomore class. Panthers head coach Brian Allison had high praise for his 10th graders coming into the season, and his belief in the youngsters was right on the money. The Panthers snapped a 12-year postseason drought behind sophomore quarterback Joseph Mancuso, who entered the playoffs with the third-most passing yards in the state (2,461), across all classifications.

West Hall: Hope rewarded by success. Despite showing real potential under first-year coach Tony Lotti in 2012, the Spartans still only produced three wins to show for their efforts. This season that potential translated into the win column, as West Hall qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and nearly shocked second-ranked Cartersville on the road in the opening round of the Class AAA state playoffs. The Spartans appear capable of developing into one of the premier programs in the area over the next few years.

White County: Proof that football still comes down to blocking and tackling. The 2013 Warriors were about as blue collar as a football team can get. That’s not the most glamorous identity in an era where explosive offense is king, but White County rode strong, fundamental football to a 9-3 season that included a 21-7 upset of North Hall.

Jared Putnam is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @jaredputnam or contact him at jputnam@gainesvilletimes.com.

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