While the teams don’t have the postseason pedigree of some, that won’t matter when the No. 2-ranked Yellow Jackets and the No. 3-ranked Braves square off in the Georgia High School Association Class AA state championship game Wednesday at 1 p.m.
Coming from communities with a combined population of around 5,000, Heard County is in the state title spotlight for the first time in the program’s 47-year history, while Rockmart returns to a championship game for the first time in 61 years.
“It’s a marquee matchup,” Rockmart head coach Biff Parson said. “And I think it’s one that’s evenly matched across the board. It should be a fun game to watch.”
While the teams are in new territory on the state championship level, neither are strangers to postseason action.
Rockmart (14-0) has been to the playoffs for the past three seasons since Parson took over the program, advancing to the second round in 2016 and 2017, and Heard County head coach Tim Barron has led the Braves to the postseason every year since 2005.
The Yellow Jackets blazed through the regular season and most of the postseason, averaging 45.8 points per game, while the defense stifled opponents, allowing only 8.5 points per game.
In the playoffs this season, Rockmart proved its mettle with a 35-23 win against Bremen in the Sweet 16 and by holding off No. 4 Callaway 28-22 in the last minutes of the semifinals to send them to the championship game.
As a clear-cut prospect as the top team in Region 7-AA, the Jackets began the season with a 20-14 win against county rival Cedartown and never let off the gas on their road to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We’re on this run, and a lot of people said we haven’t been tested, but we were tested against Cedartown, Bremen and Callaway, and our kids have responded,” Parson said. “They say we had it easy — an easy schedule, an easy region — but our kids are playing hard. They’ve kept that hunger for 14 games, and I just need them to keep it for one more.”
The Braves’ path through the season was a little rougher as the team started the year 1-2, including a 33-3 loss to Hapeville Charter and an abbreviated 33-0 defeat by Rockmart.
However Heard County (12-2) was able to recover from the slow start, going on to win its next 11 games and holding opponents to 11.3 points per game during that stretch. That includes a 13-10 win over Region 5-AA foe Callaway.
A big part of the Braves’ offense and defense is Tennessee commit Aaron Beasley, who the Jackets will get their first look at in the state title game after the two-way starter sat out the two teams’ Week 4 matchup. Beasley has 1,817 yards and 21 touchdowns, including a 260-yard, three-touchdown performance in the semifinals against Fitzgerald, in which he also sealed the 38-30 overtime win with an interception.
“He’s a big-time player,” Parson said. “He’s thrown a wrench in all our preparations. He’s always going to fall forward. He’s quicker than he looks. We definitely have our hands full on defense.”
Not to be overlooked is Heard County quarterback Alijah Huzzie, who has been a reliable “Plan B” for the Braves during their playoff run.
Fortunately for the Jackets, they have multiple playmakers of their own that can make big plays against a strong defense.
A double threat on the ground, Rockmart seniors Zabrion Whatley and Markus Smith have totaled more than 2,200 yards rushing while combining for 36 touchdowns this season.
The Yellow Jackets also feature a potent passing game to keep opposing defense guessing, led by senior quarterback Dylan Bailey, who has thrown for 26 touchdowns on the year. Most of Bailey’s throws have been to junior receiver Juke Boozer, who has 27 catches for 704 yards and 11 scores.