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Holloway: Area teams have reason to be thankful
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Thanksgiving is no day for cynicism. It’s a time to be with loved ones and reflect on the good things in life.
For that reason, we’ll avoid in this column pointing out how grateful Georgia should be to the SEC schedule makers for giving the Bulldogs one of the easiest conference schedules in recent memory. We won’t point out how Nevin Shapiro (and the general wretchedness of the ACC Coastal division) is a blessing to 6-5 Georgia Tech. And we won’t even mention how fortunate the Atlanta Falcons should feel for a slate of remaining games that not even a five-interception day from the franchise quarterback could spoil.

That would be cynical.

Instead, we’ll focus on high school football, where we can be earnest, where love of the game still reigns.

As we enter the second week of the postseason, only a few local teams are still playing, but as we see it, all have something to be thankful for.

Here’s our list.

Banks County: A rebuilding year. After back-to-back seven-win seasons, the Leopards took a step back in 2012. But under coach Philip Jones, who led Banks County to a postseason appearance in his first season, the Leopards should be competing for a playoff spot again soon.

Buford: A pair of quarterbacks who can get the job done. The Wolves have had to do without star running back Dontravious Wilson since he was injured late in the regular season. Zavior Hoxie has played well as the featured tailback since then, but the Wolves have also benefitted from the play of quarterbacks Montgomery VanGorder and Taylor Mitchell. The duo has combined for 1,363 yards this season and zero interceptions in 128 attempts.

Chestatee: An historic season. Though the season ended sooner than the War Eagles hoped, the senior class made its mark, posting the most wins in school history and hosting the program’s first playoff game this fall. It may not soothe the hurt they feel right now, but the memories made over the last few months will last a lot longer than the pain.

Commerce: A streak that lives on. The Tigers know fortune’s fickle nature better than most — they were stung by injuries to their starting quarterback and leading tackler and struggled down the stretch, but were saved by early-season wins and a new Class A playoff format that rewarded them. The Tigers will enter the playoffs as the No. 13 seed in the Class A public school division on Friday night. It makes them a long shot to win a title, but it keeps the school’s 16-year postseason streak alive.

Dawson County: An end to the playoff drought. The Tigers had high hopes for this season, and while not every goal was met, they should take pride in the face they put Dawson County back in the state playoffs for the first time since 2004. Injuries to key players on defense threatened to derail the season just as it began, but the Tigers didn’t waver, and finally claimed their playoff spot in the last week of the regular season.

East Hall: Another step closer to a winning record. For the second straight year, the Vikings finished the season 5-5 — that they were able to do so after losing their most reliable source of offense from 2011 is an indication that strides are being made in the program. Again next season, they’ll have key pieces to replace, but now they know it’s possible. Next step: A six-win season and playoff berth.

Flowery Branch: A returning quarterback. The Falcons have plenty to be thankful for, including the Region 8-AAAAA championship and an eighth consecutive playoff berth. But while success is nothing new at Flowery Branch, starting a new season with an established quarterback already in place is. The last time it happened was 2009, when Connor Shaw was returning for his senior season. The current Falcon quarterback, Jackson McDonald, proved his worth as a junior and should be primed for a big senior campaign next fall.

Gainesville: Another playoff win. The Red Elephants’ first season in Class AAAAA has been an up-and-down affair, with three losses sandwiching a string of seven straight wins in the regular season. But despite those bumps in the road, Gainesville proved it wouldn’t be pushed around and is now back in the second round of the state playoffs for the 13th straight year. Now they’ve got their sights set on their fourth quarterfinal appearance in the last five years.

Habersham Central: A year under their belt. The Raiders knew it wouldn’t be easy this season; they were bumped up to the state’s largest classification the year after losing Kevin Ellison, the quarterback who re-wrote the school record book the year before. And it won’t be easy going forward either, not in a region as tough as 7-AAAAAA. But the Raiders have taken their new rivals’ best shots and lived to tell about it. Look for improvement in the seasons ahead.

Jackson County: Proof that it can be done. In his first year at the helm, Benji Harrison led the Panthers to their first state playoff berth and their first winning record in 20 years. Key pieces must be replaced before next season, but Jackson County now has reason to believe.

Jefferson: A drama-free season. The Dragons opened with a loss to rival Commerce, rebounded with a comeback win over North Hall and since then have rolled to one big win after another. Last week’s 42-8 win over Kendrick in the first round of the playoffs was their 10th straight win, each of which came by at least 28 points.

Johnson: Success to build on. The Knight seniors leave the program with a winning legacy and some positive momentum after a 6-4 mark this fall. Coach Jason Roquemore will have a task in replacing this year’s leaders, but the next generation has already made its presence felt with freshmen like Orion Pittman and Dre Johnson playing big roles this fall.

Lakeview: A senior class that laid a foundation. The Lions had been building toward this season for years, and they got the payoff in the form of the program’s winningest season to date. A big, talented senior class now departs, but the excitement they created for Lakeview football will have a lasting impact.

Lumpkin County: Experience. The Indians struggled in their first season in Class AAAA after losing a talented senior class that led the way to back-to-back winning campaigns in 2010-11. But Lumpkin County has been through this before. The Indians went 0-10 in 2006, coach Tommy Jones’ first season, before going 5-5 the following season. A similar turnaround isn’t out of the question next fall.

North Hall: Another playoff game at home. The Trojans proved again last week that the Brickyard provides one of Northeast Georgia’s most-decided homefield advantages. North Hall steamrolled to a 38-7 win over a Woodward Academy team that many around the state projected as the favorite. This week, the Trojans are at home again as they welcome Morgan County and attempt to reach the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.

Riverside: A taste of success. It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the Eagles, but considering the way they closed the 2012 season, bright days may be coming. After struggling mightily on offense in 2011, Riverside seemed to improve each week under new coach Gary Downs, culminating in a 35-3 win over Greene County, Region 8-AA’s third-place team.

Towns County: A strong finish. The Indians picked up some needed momentum as they head into the offseason as winners of three of their last four in 2012.

Union County: A defense to build around. The Panthers fell short of the playoffs again this fall and they’ll be losing multi-faceted quarterback T Bentley next year. But coach Brian Allison should have a solid foundation in the center of his defense with sophomore linebacker Chase Barnett and junior lineman Luther Jones returning. The duo ranked among the area’s best in tackles and tackles for loss, respectively, this season.

West Hall: The right man in charge. It’s hard to spend five minutes with Spartans coach Tony Lotti and not be won over by his passion and enthusiasm. He believes in his players and the feeling is mutual. For a school that went through five coaches in 10 years before Lotti arrived in early 2012, it’d be hard to ask for more.

White County: A seven-win season. The Warriors are focused on building a program that can sustain success, and this year’s return to the playoffs should be viewed as confirmation that they’re on the right track. It’s their third time in the last four years to win as many games, and they’ll likely enter 2013 as one of Region 7-AAA’s favorites to return to the playoffs.

Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/thebholloway.

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