Wesleyan vs. Savannah Christian

Wesleyan’s Griffin Caldwell (31) runs for some of his 178 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries in his team’s Class A (Private) football quarterfinal win over Savannah Christian last Friday night. The Wolves join five other Gwinnett County teams over five different classifications still playing in the Georgia High School Association’s state semifinal this Friday night.

The deeper the high school football playoffs progress, the more it seems it takes for a team to keep surviving and advancing.

Call it urgency or desperation or any other term, the remaining teams will likely be showing even more of it when the Georgia High School Association’s 2019 state playoffs reach the semifinal round in each classification this Friday.

In fact, those traits were on display during last week’s quarterfinal round, including among the six teams from Gwinnett County in five different classifications — the most since the county sent five teams to the semis in three classes in 2010, and likely the most ever — still playing this week.

Buford (12-1), which will travel to Jones County for a Class AAAAA semifinal Friday, and Wesleyan (11-2), which plays at Fellowship Christian in a Class A (Private) semi, are perfect examples of teams pulling out the stops last Friday just to stay alive.

A pair of gambles paid off for Buford in its quarterfinal against Carrollton, with a fourth-down play on its own 27-yard line in the second quarter turning into a 73-yard touchdown run by third-string running back Victor Venn and a pass on a fake punt by Hayden Olsen keeping the game’s final drive alive to set up Olsen’s 28-yard field goal as time expired in what turned into a 24-21 win despite missing several key players to injury.

Meanwhile, the other Wolves also used a fake punt in a key situation, which offensive lineman Josh Aspinwall turned into a 46-yard gain that set up a score that broke open a close game early in the second half and paved the way for Wesleyan’s 42-16 win over Savannah Christian.

“To a guard,” Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen said of the play call after Friday night’s win. “And I’d do it again. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know turnovers, fake punts, big plays can be turning points. You couple that with just the right point in the game and you can almost feel, it’s almost palpable, the energy starts to tip.”

Greater Atlanta Christian (12-1) didn’t quite resort to that kind of trickery, but had to rally with a Jackson Hardy TD pass to Zac Mixon and two defensive stops in the last five minutes of the game to edge Hart County 17-16 in a AAA quarterfinal game.

Gwinnett’s other three remaining teams — North Gwinnett and Parkview in Class AAAAAAA and Dacula in AAAAAA — had more comfortable wins, but every one of the local teams will be preparing for intense fights in their upcoming semifinal games.

All six county teams have a lengthy history in the Final Four, though for some, Friday will mark the return to the semis after a bit of a lengthy wait.

Perhaps most surprising is that Parkview, which has won four state titles to go with two other state runner-up finishes, will be making its first trip to the semifinals since 2004 when the Panthers host Marietta in a AAAAAAA game Friday at the Big Orange Jungle.

Wesleyan’s game against Fellowship Christian will be the Wolves’ first Final Four appearance since 2010.

Buford, which boasts 11 state titles, will be returning to the semis with its trip to Jones County after having its string of 11 straight seasons in the semifinals or better snapped last year.

And getting this far again is something the Wolves will not take for granted.

“It means a lot,” Buford’s first-year head coach Bryant Appling said following last week’s win at Carrollton. “These guys have struggled and strived all year long just to have an opportunity like this. … Just the fact we get to practice on Monday and have an opportunity to play another game, it’s huge for this program. Hopefully, we’re getting (the program) back to where we want it to be. Nothing’s guaranteed, but we’ve got a chance to go 1-0 (this Friday), and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

— Staff Writer Christine Troyke contributed to this report

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Graduated from GSU in 1990. Have worked in sports journalism for the past 28 years, covering a variety of sports at the Gwinnett Daily News, AJC, Lafayette (La.) Daily Advertiser and Marietta Daily Journal before returning to Gwinnett at the Post in 2007.