Originally created 08/20/04

Georgia schools adjust to region realignment



Laney senior quarterback Dominique Walker is the best returning quarterback in the Augusta area. A three-year starter, he threw key passes for his Wildcats during the team's semifinal run to the Georgia Dome in 2002.

In 2003, he threw for 1,711 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He thinks he can throw for 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2004.

One problem, though.

"I'm going to have to do it against all new teams in our region," Walker said. "I've never played against and never heard about some of these teams."

He'll be throwing into Monticello, Morgan County, Putnam County and Greene County secondaries he's never seen.

"I guess it's going to be different," Walker said.

Different to everybody on a strong and imposing Laney team making the move to AA. Initially, it looked like the Georgia High School Association's decision to reclassify and realign the member schools was doing the Wildcats a tremendous favor.

LANEY IS A beast of a team on the offensive and defensive lines - it's the chic pick, along with Thomson, of most coaches as the best teams in the area in 2004.

"We finished great last year in Triple-A," Laney senior receiver Robert Dunn said. "Plus, we have a lot of our players coming back."

He's right. Laney won six of its last seven games in 2003 by an average of 35 points. When the Wildcats found their running game, they found a playoff run.

Spalding finally ended Laney's season in the Class AAA quarterfinals. After starting 2-4, the team finished 8-5.

Laney has six starters back on offense, five on defense and returns its entire special teams units.

"And then we get moved down to Double-A," Dunn said. "We'd have had a shot of going all the way if we stayed. Most people see us moving down just thought we were going to be even better off. It doesn't matter. We want to try to win it all regardless of where we are at."

Laney will likely be very good in 2004, but there's one problem. There are some mighty big fish in GHSA AA ball, too.

Take Buford, a program that's looking to break Parkview's state record of 46 consecutive victories. The Wolves have won 45 straight games, three consecutive state championships and their last senior class went 58-2 for their careers.

"Anybody who comes up to me with things should be easier for us in AA will have a hard time convincing me of that," Laney coach Eric Parker said.

"Especially when you start thinking about the playoffs and which will probably be the final eight teams when it comes down to it."

Parker is also right. Class AA looks mighty top-heavy considering who moved in along with the Wildcats.

AREA SCHOOLS SCREVEN County and Swainsboro combined to go 20-3-1 in AAA in 2003. They're also now new to AA and, like Laney, should be seen as state title contenders.

"I don't want to even look past my region," Swainsboro coach Shane Williamson said. "I see two recent Triple-A state champions in us and Screven. I see 2002 state runner-up Dublin. I see a quality Metter team. We just might be in the toughest region in the state. Smaller classification does not mean smaller challenges for us."

Besides Laney, Screven County and Swainsboro, six other teams that dropped down to AA made the AAA playoffs in 2003, including the Westside Patriots.

That makes a total of nine AAA playoff teams turned loose inside a AA field that also includes traditional powers Charlton County, Greater Atlanta Christian, Mitchell-Baker, Vidalia and Wesleyan, among others.

JOSEY ALSO JOINS Laney and Westside in Region 7-AA classification for at least the 2004-5 and 2005-6 school years.

"I've been coaching football on the staff here at Westside for 30 years and I don't remember coaching against anybody in our new region before. I don't think I have ever been to any of their stadiums except Greene County," Westside coach Gerald Barnes said.

Greene, Morgan and Putnam all made the AA playoffs in 2003. Morgan County was the best last season, going 10-2 and 7-0 in the region. Washington-Wilkes, which moves down to Single-A to join rival Lincoln County's region, played in 7-AA in 2003.

"They're all new teams to us but it's still just football," Laney senior Curtis Sapp said. "We'll just watch them on film, break them down and be ready on the field. Like teams we'd never seen before in the playoffs."

A MOVE THAT works well for Columbia County football is Evans' new address in Region 3-AAAA. Lakeside and Greenbrier will return to region rival status.

"It's a no-brainer nice move for us," Evans coach Marty Jackson said. "If Georgia played Auburn and it wasn't a conference game I think it would still be intense because those schools are close. When you play these schools for pride you might as well have a region game on the line, too."

Evans benefits from the ease of game-day travel now. Instead of traveling to Stone Mountain and South Atlanta, the longest bus rides will be to Milledgeville and Statesboro. There is a likely five-hour bus trip to Wayne County on next season's schedule.

"But I don't know if anybody did us a favor," Jackson said. "This region doesn't have the same overall team speed as the one we left but it's got some great, great coaches

ANOTHER MOVE OF consequence is that six area teams (Burke County, Butler, Cross Creek, Glenn Hills, Hephzibah and Thomson) moved from AAAA down to AAA.

One thing these moves do for all area teams is create more parity.

"Where we are at now is with schools that are of the same size," Parker said. "It was tough playing in the playoffs against LaGrange or even against a Washington County in our region. Our guys would be fighting fatigue. We'd have our 45 players and those teams would be sending fresh units in and out during the second half.

"But now here in Double-A, the studs are going to be playing more on both sides of the ball. Sort of like we have always had to do here."

Parker's mention of Washington County brings up one of the other interesting moves since last season. The Golden Hawks have stayed in Class AAA, but moved to an area dominated by schools of the Macon area.

Washington County tried to schedule a game with Jefferson County, but to no avail. Golden Hawks coach Rick Tomberlin said that the Warriors wanted no part of it.

"That's a school we should probably be playing," Tomberlin said. "We're close. We should have a nice little local rivalry."

It will be a change for area programs who saw the black shirt as part measuring stick, part outsider always rolling into town and leaving for home happy.

"On behalf of all my Augusta friends, I don't know how many tears were shed," Tomberlin said. "We might have been looked at as sort of the bad guys. We'd come away with a clean sweep in that region that past two seasons. I know Laney beat us once and so did Westside lately, but I don't think they're going to miss us much. I'll miss playing the coaches that I've grown to be good friends with over the years, though. Those were some first-class people running first-class teams."

THE MANDATE FOR the moves is best explained by looking at Washington County, still a Class AAA team, and Laney.

Washington County has approximately 1,068 students. Laney has 696. This year, the Golden Hawks have 120 players and just about as many seniors and juniors (45) as the number of players on the entire Laney team (46).

It's ridiculous to expect the two programs to be classified as the same size.

Now Washington County is one of the state's top programs, so not every team will have its numbers. Even if you factor in a school with half the participation of the youth in Sandersville, there's inequality.

"These moves are all about trying to get everybody in the same boat when it comes to numbers and personnel," Parker said. "It's all about trying to keep it all fair."

Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or jeff.sentell@augustachronicle.com.