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Rising stars: Next generation ready to shine
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High school football and elections have a lot in common.

For the most part, each team, like the country, has a main guy — a leader, a star.

And like elections, those stars come and go every four years.

But unlike in politics, in high school football stars don’t get a chance to be re-elected. Every four years, or in some cases on an annual basis, a team’s superstars are replaced by the next generation of great athletes.

This year in Region 7-AAA, the stars are gone; but who will take their place is yet to be determined.

"I’ve learned that kids change so much from year to year, it’s hard to project who will be great," said North Hall coach Bob Christmas, who lost his starting quarterback, fullback, wing back and two running backs to graduation in 2007. In total, those five players accounted for more than 4,000 yards rushing and 60 touchdowns for the Trojans, who reached the Class AAA state semifinals last year.

That extensive loss of offense has Christmas ready to give everyone a chance to shine.

"We’re going to work them hard and give everyone a chance to show us what they can do," he said.

But Christmas isn’t the only one feeling the strains of a star lost to graduation.

At Flowery Branch, Lee Shaw is without the services of his son and four-year starting quarterback Jaybo Shaw, who is now playing for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. But Lee Shaw didn’t have to go far to find a replacement. In fact, he didn’t even have to look outside his own family — Shaw’s younger son Connor, a junior, will take over signal-calling duties for the Falcons this year.

"It’s kind of our responsibility to find what our strength is as an offense, and I think we have," Lee Shaw said in response to how he will fill the shoes of Jaybo Shaw, who accounted for 9,350 yards and 127 touchdowns in his career.

"We’re not asking Connor to do everything that Jaybo did early," Lee Shaw said. "We don’t have to."

Just because the Falcons don’t have to rely on their junior quarterback doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel the pressure of replacing his older brother.
"I have huge footsteps to fill," said Connor Shaw, who was a star wide receiver last year for Flowery Branch. "I wasn’t sure about going from receiver to quarterback, but I’ve gained confidence over the summer and I’m ready to roll."

Heading into his junior year, replacing his older brother is not the only thing that Connor Shaw has to worry about.
"I’ve got a lot of hype I have to live up to," said Connor Shaw, who was offered a scholarship by Georgia Tech this summer. "I’m not going to let it get to my head. I don’t worry about the pressure, I just worry about leading the team."

Flowery Branch and North Hall are not the only 7-AAA schools relying on a new leader under center. East Hall, White County, Johnson and Gainesville all will have new quarterbacks once the season begins.

The most pressure will be on the quarterbacks of the Warriors and the Red Elephants, who will be replacing players who led their teams to the playoffs and accounted for 4,649 total yards of offense and 49 touchdowns.

"It just feels like another year," said Gainesville junior quarterback Blake Sims, who is replacing Justin Fordham and his more than 3,000 yards passing. "I’m just going to come out and do my best and hopefully my line does like what they did for (Fordham) and we’ll have another 3,000-yard passer."

While new White County quarterback Chantz Segraves won’t have to replace a 3,000-yard passer, he will have to replace Tyler Norman, who finished the year with a 147.57 quarterback rating. For Segraves, knowing the system will help him fill the void left by Norman.

"Chantz understands the system as good as I do," said White County coach and Chantz’s father, Gregg Segraves. "He’s been running this system since he’s been in the eighth grade, and he knows what we expect and he knows what his strengths and weaknesses are."

Experience will help the Warriors’ new quarterback, but no one will benefit more from a year under his belt than one of the few returning quarterbacks in the region, West Hall’s Shunquez Stephens.

"He’s probably the best quarterback that’s come out of West Hall," Spartans coach Mike Newton said. "And when it’s all said and done he’ll probably be one of the best quarterbacks to ever come out of Hall County."

Newton believes in his young quarterback so much that he is willing to compare him to a quarterback who is no longer in the region.

"He’s not like Jaybo (Shaw) in stature," Newton said. "But he can make plays like Jaybo. Jaybo made a lot of plays for Flowery Branch, and that’s what I expect out of Shunquez, to make plays."

Making plays is what all of the coaches will expect out of their new presidents of playcalling, but the quarterbacks aren’t alone in filling the shoes of former offensive team leaders.

The running (and receiving) mates

JoJo Sweet, Hunter Wolf, Tyler Adetona, Cameron Jackson and Gerald Ford are just a few of the running backs and wide receivers that are no longer in office in Region 7-AAA. And like the departed playcalling presidents, their absence is felt, but not necessarily detrimental to success.

"You see them gone and you realize it happens every year," Christmas said. "Some kid’s going to get his opportunity, and he’s going to impress people."

One of those kids is North Hall senior Graham Duncan, who will be asked to replace the offense of the Wolf brothers (Hunter and Dylan), Bobby Epps and Fabian Jackson.

"He’s a really electric type of player," Christmas said of Duncan, who runs a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. "I think we have one of the best players in the region in Graham."

Graham, like Chestatee incumbent Ben Souther, will rely on their experience to replace the offense of guys like Sweet and the Wolfs. But it is a foursome of young ball carriers who may make the most noise in the region this year.

White County and Johnson will both feature sophomore running backs in Ashely Lowery and Mantevius Rucker, Gainesville will have a new running back in North Hall transfer Robert Humphrey, and Flowery Branch will have the youngest of rushers in freshman Imani Cross.

"I haven’t heard this much hype about a kid ever," said Chestatee coach Stan Luttrell of Cross.

"There’s a lot of hype on him," Connor Shaw said of Cross. "I look forward to big things from him the next four years."

According to Flowery Branch’s head coach, while Cross may have the hype, he won’t have the pressure of carrying the Falcons.

"He’s got a chance to be an outstanding running back," Lee Shaw said. "But he doesn’t have to carry the load by himself; we have four capable backs."

Cross may be the talk of the region, but according to one coach, he wouldn’t trade his guy for anyone.

"I think Ashely Lowery matches up with anybody," Seagraves said. "As a sophomore, he sees things that most sophomores don’t see."

One thing that Gainesville coach Bruce Miller hopes he sees is a performance from his new receiving corps that is comparable to that of Adetona and Ford, who are both playing college football this year.

Junior transfer T.J. Jones knows what is expected of him.

"I do have to live up to what they did last year, but I’m not in their shoes," he said. "I’m making my own name."

Those words can be heard echoing throughout the region with the next generation of stars.

After all, it will be those names made this year that will replace the names made in previous years.

And in the years to come, the names known on the field this year will be replaced by the names of tomorrow.

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