BEST GAME // South Forsyth 21, West Forsyth 17 on Nov. 4
This was a revenge game for the War Eagles, who fell to the Wolverines 38-34 a season prior, but there was one problem. Starting quarterback Davis Shanley went from trying to endure a lingering back injury to wearing his letter jacket, which meant that sophomore quarterback Drew Morris would shoulder the pressure of leading South past West. Morris had seen action the week before against Forsyth Central; there wasn't nearly as much pressure then. The War Eagles used ball control—Morris, electing to run often—to build a 14-3 lead, but Joey Congrove stole momentum as the second quarter clock hit zero with an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. West then took the opening kick of the second half deep into South territory, leading to a 24-yard touchdown pass from Kiernen Hamilton to Zach Burns. At that point it was a wonder if Morris could lead his team back, but he didn't have to worry as senior Julian Mingo spun off a defender and raced down the sideline for a 58-yard go-ahead score. South used three big sacks, including one late by Jack Pehrson, and a gutsy fourth-and-1 conversion in its own territory from Morris to seal the game late, sending the home crowd into a frenzy. South clinched a home playoff game with the victory.
BEST ATMOSPHERE // Hillgrove 35, West Forsyth 56 on Sept. 9
Two local television stations and a major radio station showed up for this one—it just so happened to be West's homecoming, and it just so happened to be a rematch of a 2011 second round playoff game that West won 40-28. Hillgrove entered as the bigger, scarier team from Cobb County; West didn't have a care in the world. In front of a packed crowd that drew praise from the media outlets at hand, West jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Big plays were a constant, keeping the crowd energized, and momentum swings throttled the nerves. Every time it looked like Hillgrove was about to stage a comeback, West came up with a big play. Cade Vela's midfield interception, which led to a 49-28 lead, sealed what was an action-packed night that West fans won't forget for a while.
BEST PLAY // Charlie Aiken 43-yard pass from Ben Bales against Pickens, Sept. 17
North Forsyth was looking to improve to 3-1 under first-year head coach Robert Craft, and emerging star quarterback Ben Bales had become a benefactor of the new up-tempo offense. Still, Bales needed that big moment to add to his resume and an unlikely hero teamed up with him to make it happen. North trailed Pickens 31-28 with just 25 seconds remaining in the game. The Raiders held the ball at the Dragons' 43-yard line and no timeouts—so first downs, sideline passes or a bomb were the only plays on the table. Bales went for the latter choice. With North's most dangerous weapon, Simon Holcomb, lined up in the slot, sophomore Charlie Aiken flanked the offense to the right side. North overloaded the secondary with deep routes and Pickens' safeties moved toward the middle of the field, looking for Holcomb. That left Aiken open down the sideline for a split second, and Bales threaded the needle on a deep throw. Aiken caught the ball at the 5-yard line and found the front corner of the end zone before he was pulled to the ground. Coal Mountain magic was back.
BEST COACHING JOB // Louis Daniel, Lambert
If Lambert learned anything in 2016 it was that in high school football—especially with the way the new classifications were set up—records didn't matter. Instead, Daniel took the opportunity to schedule a near-impossible non-region slate after the reduction of region teams from 10 to six created a scheduling hole. Mountain View, Collins Hill, Cherokee, Lanier and Wheeler made up the first-half of the season—all Class 7A schools, and all very talented. Lambert had its ups and downs, falling to Mountain View in the season opener by four points. The Longhorns then earned revenge over Collins Hill (which beat them in the playoffs last year), fell in an epic shootout to Cherokee, ran out of time against ranked Lanier and won in an epic shootout against Wheeler. Then came the region schedule, where the 2-3 Longhorns were an afterthought to all except themselves. Lambert won the next three, including a 28-20 victory over South and a 17-7 win against West to emerge as the region's top team. The Longhorns clinched the program's first-ever region championship with a 59-0 win over Central before blowing out Central Gwinnett, 44-14, for the program's first state playoff win. With a team that suffered major injuries and struggled with consistency all season, Daniel was the voice of reason and constantly reminded his team that their goals were in front of them and that much could be learned in tough losses.
BEST PERFORMANCE // Grant Torgerson against Hillgrove
Torgerson had been waiting for this game—the senior was sidelined for the first two games of the season with a case of mononucleosis, so even though he was back on the field he still admitted he felt like a shell of himself. The key word was “felt.” Once the game began, Torgerson went off. The linebacker forced a fumble that Thomas Arundale returned 76 yards for a score, while also recovering a fumble and making numerous tackles near the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. But on offense he stole the show, scoring five touchdowns on the ground to help the Wolverines out-pace Hillgrove's dangerous offense.
BEST BREAKOUT PLAYER // Tyler Gillis, Lambert
When Lambert graduated Tanner Hall—now at Georgia Southern—there were definite questions about who would fill his shoes as a go-to receiver in an offense that relies on having a guy to go to in big situations. Even more so, Lambert's stable of tailbacks made it appear they'd be a possession offense—rather than an explosive one—in quarterback Richie Kenney's senior season. So much for that. Gillis, a junior who almost didn't play football to pursue a career in motor sports, burst onto the scene and became the best big-play threat in the county. He attributed his growth to mentorship from Hall before his departure, along with coaching from former Atlanta Falcons' wide receiver Terrance Mathis and a fearless attitude. By season's end he caught 36 passes for 942 yards and a whopping 15 touchdowns in just 11 games. His 26.2-yard per catch average led the county, as did his scoring total.
“I coached with Adam (Clack) for seven years.” – Forsyth Central head coach Frank Hepler said, with a pronounced grin, when asked how the Bulldogs intercepted West Forsyth quarterback Kiernen Hamilton three times. Clack was an assistant under Hepler before being promoted to head coach.
“There was only one Jean-Felix to beat South in his final season. I've got to admit, it feels pretty awesome.” – Jaryd Jean-Felix after his blocked punt and touchdown led Lambert past South. His brothers Jordyn and Justyn also played football for the Longhorns, but never beat the War Eagles during their senior seasons.
“We could be 5-0, but we're not and I'm glad because we learn from our adversity. We've been through things that have made us stronger. Now we've got to come back and be ready for next week, but this is definitely a big win for us.” – Lambert head coach Louis Daniel after beating South for the first time.