This is it. There are no more games after this one, win or lose. The Calhoun Yellow Jackets know that, and there is not one player or coach that wants to leave Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday without a state championship trophy along for the ride home.
The Jackets will play on the biggest stage in Georgia high school football this Friday when they take on Peach County in the Class AAA State Championship Game at 1 p.m. Calhoun (13-1) are looking to add their fourth-ever state title and third in the last seven seasons.
Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said he knows that many of his players will have wide-open eyes before Friday’s championship game, but they need to focus on the task at hand rather than the surroundings and hype in order to give themselves the best shot at winning.
“It’s the biggest stage of a high school career, and I want our guys to cherish the moment and enjoy it because you don’t get that chance very often,” said Lamb. “But the reality is we still have a game to play, and our goal is to win that game just like every other game we’ve had this year. I know both teams will be full of adrenaline because we both know what is on the line, but I think the team that handles that ‘wow’ factor better is probably going to be the one that wins the game.”
Calhoun set themselves up with this shot at a state title with an impressive win last Friday in the Final Four over Cedar Grove, who was the defending state champion, the team that eliminated the Jackets last postseason and a big favorite in many peoples’ minds. But Lamb’s team got ready just like any other week, went down to Decatur, played their game and walked away with a season-extending 14-6 win thanks to an incredible effort by their defense, business-like approach from the offense and solid special teams.
“Our kids believed we could win,” said Lamb of the lead-up to the Cedar Grove matchup. “To go there and beat a team that talented on their field says a lot about our kids. I think they were focused, and they executed the gameplan on both sides of the ball. Defensively, I can’t say enough about how well we played, and our special teams was solid. Offensively, we made big plays when we needed to, and I think we had the chance to score even more points, but it just didn’t play out that way. Overall, I’m just proud of our team getting that win and setting ourselves up to play for a state title.”
Calhoun quarterback Gavin Gray threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns in the game, one to Davis Allen in the first half and another on a 60-yard deep route to Brannon Spector. Spector finished with five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Zack Fuller provided tough yards in the running game with 70 yards on the ground.
The defense was stellar, holding an explosive Cedar Grove offense to just six points and 172 total yards. Allen led the team in tackles with 15 total (10 solo) and one tackle-for-loss, and Bralin Barton seemed to be always in the right spot, accounting for three interceptions.
The level of play from the opponent gets no drop-off this week as Peach County (13-1) enters the title game with as much momentum and ability as any team that the Jackets have faced in the postseason.
The Trojans are led by senior quarterback Antonio Gilbert, who has thrown for 3,031 yards this year with 23 touchdowns and only one interception. Senior running backs Trevon Woolfolk and Chris Gibson are both very formidable on the ground with Woolfolk totaling 1,152 yards and 20 touchdowns, and Gibson accounting for 747 yards and 20 TDs. Gilbert has also added 11 touchdowns on the ground.
It is unclear if star receiver and Georgia commit Kearis Jackson is going to play in the game after suffering a hand injury a few weeks ago, but even without the leading pass-catcher on the team, the Trojans boast a talented receiving corps with eight different players catching a touchdown pass this season.
Peach County’s defense has playmakers all over the field as well led by Georgia Tech commit Jaquez Jackson, who has 124 total tackles, 25 tackles-for-loss, five sacks and an interception.
Safety Shamarcus Redding and linebacker Sergio Allen are also names to look out for in the game.
“They are every bit as good as any team we’ve faced this year or in the last few years,” said Lamb. “They are fast, athletic, strong and have a lot of tradition. But that’s the way it should be. This is a state championship game, and you expect to play the best. Our kids will be ready, and their kids will be ready. It’s going to be a great game.”
Lamb said his team is getting ready for a different kind of challenge than they have faced so far in the playoffs.
“They are a different team than we’ve faced the last four games,” said Lamb. “Their quarterback is very good and can throw it and run when he needs to. They have good receivers, and they are strong on defense. I really don’t see any weaknesses.
“We’ve got to be physical and sound on both sides of the ball. We can’t turn the ball over, and we need to milk some clock with long offensive drives.”