When the coaches of Region 8-AAA put together a poll in the preseason, they tabbed Hart County as their favorite, just ahead of Jefferson. Area media had that pecking order flip-flopped, pegging the Dragons as the team to beat.
The two will settle who’s better on the field this week.
Tenth-ranked Jefferson (4-1, 2-0) will travel to fifth-ranked Hart County (5-0, 1-0) Friday (Oct. 11) for a 7:30 p.m. game. The highly-anticipated matchup is the first meeting between the two in Hartwell since a 2014 matchup that decided the Region 8-AAA title.
The winner of this game will be in the drivers’ seat for the region championship.
While this is certainly a big game for Jefferson, that’s nothing new for the Dragons, who have produced a state title and three region championships along four region runner-up finishes over the last seven seasons.
“You hope to create an atmosphere of expectation that the reason you play football at Jefferson is to play in games that matter,” said Dragon coach Gene Cathcart, whose team is coming off a 33-0 win over Franklin County. “When you look at it that way, all games matter.”
The coach added that his team knows how talented and well-coached its opponent is this week.
“Hopefully, they’re excited about it because it is fun to go out and compete at the highest level against the very best the state has to offer,” Cathcart said.
Sophomore running back-defensive back Malaki Starks said they are indeed excited.
“I love it,” he said. “Playing in a great football game that’s got great football players in a big atmosphere is amazing. This is my first year playing high school ball, but I have played in big games before, and this will be a big game. I just love it. I can’t wait.”
Hart County, a traditional regional power in Northeast Georgia, has returned to form this year under coach Rance Gillespie. Following 3-8 and 4-7 campaigns in Gillespie’s first two years, the fifth-ranked Bulldogs are off to the program’s first 5-0 start since 2014.
“I don’t think anybody in our region is surprised at all,” Cathcart said. “Hart County has great players every year, even the years that they had been struggling, they’ve been unbelievably athletic.”
Cathcart said the combination of those players and Gillespie, a former offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern, and his staff have yielded the impressive results this year for the Bulldogs.
It’s certainly helped to have a roster that features two Power 5 conference commits in tight end Cane Berrong (Notre Dame) and defensive end Kaimon Rucker (North Carolina).
At the controls of the offense is quarterback Luke Lee (52-of-76 passing, 629 yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions), who threw for over 200 yards and three touchdowns against Jackson County Sept. 27.
Cathcart said Hart County forces a team to defend the entire field, running and passing the ball equally well, and using the run to set up the pass.
“They certainly want to cause you to get more guys involved in the run game to certainly open up their throwing game,” Cathcart said.
Junior running back Malachi Thomas leads the Bulldog ground game with 623 yards and eight downs on 77 carries.
Malaki vs. Malachi
Speaking of Thomas, this matchup will feature two of the region’s top offensive talents, who happen to share the same first name, though spelled slightly different.
Jefferson’s Malaki Starks comes into Friday’s game with 354 yards rushing on just 20 carries and 490 total yards on 25 touches. He’s averaging 19.6 yards every time the ball is in his hands.
Malachi Thomas is averaging 8.1 yards per carry and 124.6 yards per game. Thomas had a rushing, receiving and special teams score in the Bulldogs’ 56-13 win over Jackson County.
Starks said he does indeed know his counterpart.
“I know him very well,” he said. “I’ve run track with him, and I’ve played against him in basketball sometimes. He’s a great athlete. He really is. It’s going to be fun to compete against those guys because I know some of them. We are friends, but on the field, we’re football players, so it’s going to be fun.”
Cathcart said the two are “both just really outstanding players in their own right.”
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for all of their guys, but Malachi is certainly an incredible football player and does a lot to help their football team,” he said. “We’re extremely proud of ours and believe we’re going to go ahead and keep him.”
But Hart County’s Malachi is one of many impressive Bulldogs, according to coach. That includes the defensive side of the ball.
Cathcart said the Bulldog defensive unit, one that’s highlighted by Rucker, is well-coached and equipped with sure tacklers under the direction of former Jefferson assistant coach Corey Dickerson.
“There’s no shortage of athletic talent, but also scheme-wise, they’ll be very well prepared for us,” Cathcart said.
Major road test
The Dragons have the added pressure of playing this top-10 matchup on the road. But Cathcart believes a caravan of Dragon fans will make the hour trip up I-85.
“The beauty of being a Dragon is our fans will certainly roam, so on the road, it feels like home,” he said. “That’s what we say … And we know they (Hart County) will have an unbelievable atmosphere.”
Starks believes continued team cohesion is the key for the Dragons in this high-stakes matchup.
“Playing together as a team,” Starks said. “We have been winning a lot of games, and we have a bunch of mojo going for us. I feel like if we keep it up, and we play as a team, then we’re unstoppable … I feel like if we execute, and we all just believe in one another, then we’re going to be fine.”
Cathcart, in his 16th season as a head coach, sees little pressure in types of games like this, ironically.
“There’s always a certain amount of freedom when you just go and know that these are two teams that have the potential to make deep runs in the playoffs,” he said. “It should be a great night for high school football.”
Cathcart said that last week’s players of the week against Franklin County were Kolton Jones (offense), Mason Ware (offense), Hunter Blayton (defense), Rem Maxwell (defense), Austin Redmon (special teams) and Jermaine Sims (scout team) … Cathcart noted that the junior varsity has a road game at Walnut Grove on Thursday (Oct. 10). The stadium is located at 4863 Guthrie Cemetery Road Loganville, Ga. 30052.