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Trion fullback Braden Johnson tries to shake loose from LaFayette's Alan Hu during a scrimmage in August.

REGION 6-A OUTLOOK

Teams to beat: There are plenty in this 15-team region, which produced eight state berths across the private school and public school playoffs a year ago, but in Subregion 6A-A, to which Christian Heritage, Gordon Lee and Trion belong, Darlington and Mount Zion-Carroll are trouble enough. In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s preseason top 10 polls, Darlington’s Tigers ranked sixth among private schools and Mount Zion’s Eagles were fourth among public schools.

Watch out for: Trion hasn’t won a region title in 15 years, and expecting that skid to end this season is probably unrealistic because of the amount of experience lost to graduation, but the Bulldogs have never had a losing season under seventh-year coach Justin Brown and have made three straight playoff appearances. Trion was part of the three-way tie atop the subregion standings with Darlington and Mountain Zion in 2017, losing to the Tigers and beating the Eagles in consecutive weeks. The Bulldogs won’t face either until the second half of the season this year, allowing them time to improve and put together the formula for an upset.

Best game: It was a top-10 showdown when Darlington and Mount Zion met in late September last year. The Tigers will try to avenge that one-point loss when the Eagles visit on Sept. 21.

Dream schedule: None of Gordon Lee’s nonregion opponents (Class AA’s Dade County, AAA’s Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and AAAA’s LaFayette) had a winning record last season. The Trojans have a chance to strike early, then pull for those nonregion foes to win later — and help Gordon Lee’s power rating.

Nightmare schedule: Christian Heritage’s nonregion opponents (Class A’s Riverside Military Academy, AA’s Gordon Central and AAAA’s LaFayette) went a combined 7-23 last year, but that’s not where the problem lies. The Lions start their 6A-A schedule with back-to-back games against Mount Zion and Darlington, which is less than desirable, though Christian Heritage does host both.

Players to watch: There were several preseason all-state selections from 6A-A, including Christian Heritage kicker Joe Dixon and defensive lineman Duane Jones, Darlington quarterback Griffin Brewster and Mount Zion defensive back Tyriese Farley. The biggest recruiting buzz, though, is about Darlington junior Tate Ratledge, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound offensive tackle who is the Peach State’s eighth-ranked recruit overall in the 2020 signing class, according to 247Sports.com, and has received interest from Southeastern Conference programs, including Georgia. Said Trion coach Justin Brown: “When Kirby Smart lands a helicopter on your practice field to come see you, you’re pretty good.”

 

The few weeks granted by the Georgia High School Association for official preseason football practices pass far too quickly for the average coach.

It seems there is never enough time to help young players adjust to a higher level of the game, nor are there enough days to allow inexperience and doubt to morph into comfort and confidence for athletes in new positions or bigger roles.

Of course, that's where nonregion play saves many programs, with at least a handful of games providing coaches and players with a somewhat innocuous proving ground before league matchups arrive and the chase for state playoff berths begins.

Then there is Class A, where teams must be ready to go the first week of the season or risk paying the price when the private school and public school state playoff brackets are set in November.

For most teams in the GHSA's six largest classes, finishing in the top four of the region is the winning formula. The math is more complicated in Class A, where a region title comes with an automatic spot in the postseason but the remaining berths are decided by power ratings. Those ratings are based on wins and strength of schedule, which means beating teams from higher classifications and having them go on to have good seasons is paramount.

Read: Just win (now), baby.

"Our nonregion schedule counts just as much and sometimes more than our region schedule does because we're on these power rankings," said Trion coach Justin Brown, who's preparing for his seventh season leading the Bulldogs.

"Every game's important for us. We've got to come out of the gate (prepared), and we've been fortunate enough to be able to do that for the most part since 2012."

Last season, Trion tied for first place in Region 6-A's "A" subdivision — which includes northwest Georgia teams Christian Heritage and Gordon Lee — and was seeded 12th in the public school playoffs based on its power rating.

The Bulldogs must replace nine starters on offense and eight on defense from that team, and while Brown is confident there is talent on the roster, he knows the clock is running.

"We're always concerned with depth, and there's a couple of spots where we are concerned about experience," Brown said. "So we're hoping those guys do a good job of learning on the run. Every rep is imporant at practice they've really got to be on a fast learning curve because nobody feels sorry for you on Friday nights."

Jake Hayes, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound senior offensive tackle is one of the few returning starters and an important leader for the Bulldogs. Custody of the wing-T offense has been given to junior quarterback Lincoln Maddux, who takes over for three-year starter Jarrett Gill.

He should have a good supporting cast, including fullback Braden Johnson and wingback Hagen Willingham, both part of a senior class trying to become the first group of Bulldogs since 2000 to finish their high school careers with a winning record every season.

Christian Heritage is looking for its first winning season since 2013 and just its second overall since beginning GHSA play six years ago. Third-year Lions coach Jay Poag has more experience than ever in his tenure, with a trio of seniors expected to lead the way: wide receiver Zach Gentry (5-9, 170), defensive end Duane Jones (6-3, 215) and quarterback Matthew Neff (6-3, 205).

The Lions will count on plenty of sophomores and juniors on a roster of 40-something players, but the experience gained the past two years means fewer Lions will be expected to contribute on each side of the ball. Now the goal is shifting from survival to competition — and eventually, the top step.

"I'm excited about what's in front of us," Poag said. "We're really just looking to take that next step and continue to build a program that can compete for championships."

Gordon Lee returns six starters on each side of the ball, and Trojans coach Greg Ellis is excited about the physical maturity his team has developed through work in the weight room, but he is counting on better health than last season to help them make a playoff push.

They're counting on seven two-way starters, and that makes avoiding injuries even more important.

It's just one more hard fact of life in Class A, where, Trion's coach will remind you, the news isn't all bad.

"It's a good region, and we've all played each other a lot through the years," Brown said of 6A-A. "We've got some good rivalries in the region, and that's pretty cool for small towns on a Friday night."

Contact Marty Kirkland at mkirkland@timesfreepress.com.

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