RINGGOLD, Ga. — Five games into this GHSA football season, there appeared to be few paths to the state playoffs for Heritage and Ringgold.
Each team stood 1-4, injuries were mounting and the countdown to basketball season had begun. Six weeks later, after strong finishes, both are still practicing as they prepare for first-round road games tonight.
Heritage (5-5) was hit hard by graduation losses from last year's nine-win team, including players who accounted for nearly all of its offensive production and 10 of 11 defensive starters. The lack of experience showed early in three lopsided losses to programs from smaller classifications.
However, the Generals regrouped behind sophomore quarterback Nick Hanson and the emergence of receiver Nolan Letzgus to end the regular season with three consecutive offensive outputs of more than 50 points to earn Region 6-AAAA's third seed.
"We had a lot of injuries early, and we're kind of a young team," Heritage coach E.K. Slaughter said. "But by midseason, you aren't young anymore. They figured some things out, and the addition of Nolan Letzgus was big. When he joined us at midseason, we started getting the confidence that we could score on anybody."
Letzgus, a 6-foot-2, 186-pound senior, has 900 yards and nine touchdowns in just six games — including a 12-catch, 111-yard debut against Ridgeland on Sept. 21 — giving Hanson (1,874 passing yards, 18 touchdowns) a true go-to receiver. Factor in 1,000-yard rusher Jeffery Curtis, and the Generals have an offense that even tonight's opponent, perennial state power Marist (8-2), might find difficult to stop.
"Marist is good as usual, and they are very multiple on both sides of the ball," Slaughter said of the Atlanta program that has advanced to at least the quarterfinals five of the past six years. "They are tough to prepare for, but I would like to think we are as well."
Ringgold's playoff path is unique, to say the least. The Tigers finished fifth in deep Region 6-AAA, but they were awarded an at-large playoff berth due to a GHSA rule designed to make sure a region with only four teams wasn't automatically awarded four playoff spots. Class AAAAAAA's bracket also had an at-large berth, with the determinations based on a power ratings system similar to the one that decides most of the state berths in Class A.
"It really helps the integrity of the playoff brackets," Ringgold coach Robert Akins said. "Teams that are 0-10 or 1-9 shouldn't go, and I'm not just saying that because we got the spot. I think it's equitable, and if I was in a four-team region and was 1-9, I wouldn't want to go."
The Tigers (5-5) had early close losses to region foes Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and North Murray before falling big to 2017 state champion Calhoun. A 30-14 loss to Haralson County locked them out of the top four in the region, but closing wins over Adairsville and Coahulla Creek sealed the at-large position.
"We're excited about going," Akins said of today's trip to powerhouse Peach County (8-2), which has won 11 region titles this century and won three state titles from 2005 to 2009. "To make it practicing another week and be one of the 32 Triple-A teams still playing is a great achievement. Peach County is very good, but feel we're playing much better late in the year.
"They have a really good quarterback (Jayden Gibson) who is also a running threat. Defensively, they are big and strong and fast, and they can lock you down in the secondary. It will be a great challenge for us."
Ringgold's resurgence began with moving all-star receiver Andre Tarver to the backfield, which changed the offense from pass-happy to a more balanced attack. Senior quarterback Cole Kibler still has playmakers on the outside in Pete Brower and Dylan Wright.
Here's a look at other first-round games involving area teams:
Flowery Branch (8-2) at Ridgeland (7-3): Flowery Branch is the No. 3 seed out of brutally tough Region 7, and the Falcons' losses were to top-ranked Blessed Trinity (by a point in overtime) and to Marist the next week. However, injuries and undisclosed issues have cost the team its top two running backs and its top receiver. Ridgeland will have no such problem, led by 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Blackwell and dangerous receiver Stephon Walker.
Northwest Whitfield (6-4) at Blessed Trinity (10-0): Top-ranked Blessed Trinity won't overwhelm the Bruins with speed, but the Titans are well-coached and physical, led by running back Steele Chambers and linemen Austin Burns and Jackson Filipowicz. Northwest's best bet is for senior quarterback Ty Fisher and receivers Mason Blanchard and Seth Henderson to get going early.
Fannin County (4-6) at Calhoun (10-0): The Reeve will be rocking as usual as Calhoun, coming off a state-record 18th consecutive region championship, begins its bid to repeat as state champion. Fannin has had trouble stopping teams, having given up an average of more than 30 points per game this year, but the Rebels do have a 1,000-yard rusher, Treylyn Owensby, and quarterback Luke Holloway, who has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards. Calhoun's defense is among the best in the state, with three shutouts over the past six games, and the starting unit has allowed one touchdown since mid-September.
North Hall (8-2) at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe (7-3): The Warriors, who are hosting a playoff game for the first time in 14 years, have drawn an experienced opponent seeking its first postseason win since 2012. Each team relies heavily on the run. The Trojans' J.T. Fair and Daniel Jackson have combined for nearly 1,300 yards this season — each has averaged more than 10 yards per carry — and quarterback David Seavey has 1,000 total yards and 17 touchdowns. LFO counters with 1,000-yard fullback Nathan Williams and a trio of speedy playmakers: Giovanni Barroso, Jacob Brown and Deandre Rowe.
North Murray (6-4) at Greater Atlanta Christian (8-2): The pass-heavy Spartans, led by Josh Rose (1,366 passing yards, 12 touchdowns), will test an improved North Murray defense. The Mountaineers need a big game from senior quarterback Preston Poag Jr., especially in the red zone, to stay in this one.
Booker T. Washington (7-3) at Chattooga (8-2): One of the top matchups in Class AA features a pair of teams with high-powered offenses. Washington rides the arm of Adrien Williams (1,554 passing yards, 20 touchdowns) and freshman running back Quintavious Lockett, who already has scholarship offers from Southeastern Conference programs. Chattooga's rushing offense is the best in AA and led by E.J. Lackey (967 yards), LaShaun Lester (901) and Devin Price (512).
Class A private
Brookstone (6-4) at Christian Heritage (7-3): The Lions, who are hosting a GHSA playoff game for the first time, are getting healthy at the right time and will need to have another big game from quarterback Matthew Neff and his top receivers, Zach Gentry and Evan Lester. Duane Jones, Michael Herndon and Syd Reeves will have to keep speedy Brookstone running back Jeremiah Burgess under control.
Class A public
Wilcox County (5-5) at Trion (7-3): The key for Trion will be containing the speed of the Patriots, particularly quarterback Noah Hollingsworth, who is a home-run threat on any keeper. Trion will lean heavily on its large offensive line led by Jake Hayes (6-5, 305) and the shifty running of senior Hagen Willingham.
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.