For a majority of high school football programs, being among the final eight teams remaining in their classification’s bracket is seen as a crowning achievement by itself. But a little more than a year ago for Calhoun, it turned into a catalyst.
A loss to Benedictine in last year’s quarterfinals snapped a string of five state championship game appearances in a row for the Yellow Jackets. From that point on, Calhoun, driven by its upperclassmen has been driven to regain its position on the state’s biggest high school football stage.
Calhoun takes on Washington County at 4:30 p.m. on Friday in the GHSA Class AAA state championship game at the Georgia Dome.
“Last year when we lost to Benedictine, our seniors were in here the next Monday ready to work and determined not to let it happen again next year,” Calhoun head coach Hal Lamb said. “Since then, they’ve been working their tails off, and it went into the offseason, and they carried it into July and to the season.”
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The determination has shown on the field.
The unbeaten Yellow Jackets have won 10 of their 14 games by at least 20 points and held half of their opponents to one score or less. In addition, Calhoun scored more than 20 points in each game from the season opener all the way to the second round of the playoffs. The quarterfinal round was the closest to defeat the Yellow Jackets have come all year long, beating Elbert County 19-17.
A season of big numbers, however, isn’t the exception for Calhoun. In fact, Calhoun would be mentioned as a possible dynasty in recent years if not for Buford. In the first four of its state title appearances, Calhoun went up against Buford, with the Wolves winning three times. Calhoun lost to Jefferson in 2012.
With that success comes high expectations for each group of a seniors at Calhoun as it enters the program as underclassmen. With younger players seeing from first-hand experience the success of those before them, a clear understanding instilled as far as the expectations of winning go.
“Each class we have sets the table for the next class,” Lamb said. “When they come into our program, it’s all laid out for them.”
Lamb, who hints that Washington County could have a slight advantage having played at the Georgia Dome last year in the state championship against Buford, acknowledges what each opposing coach of Washington County has also noted this year -- the importance of slowing down Golden Hawks quarterback AJ Gray. Lamb compares Gray to former Greene County and eventual Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt. Last week against Blessed Trinity, Gray accounted for 366 yards and three touchdowns. That was actually a drop off from a week before when he rushed for 442 yards and eight touchdowns against Pierce County.
“He’s unbelievable; you can probably call him Superman,” Lamb said. “He’s big, strong, fast and can throw it. But they have some other guys besides him. They have a powerful offensive line and a strong defense, as well.”
At the end of the day Friday, Lamb expects turnovers to play a big role in determining the Class AAA champion. The Yellow Jackets are plus-three in turnover ratio. Quarterback Kaelan Riley has 22 touchdowns to offset seven interceptions, having thrown for 2,307 yards.
“We can’t turn the ball over,” Lamb said. “If we do, it’s going to be a long night.”