EATONTON — Two longtime Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) programs will meet tonight in what some are referring to as the de facto 2019 AA state championship.
The semifinal matchup between the defending state champion Gatewood Gators (10-2) and Brentwood War Eagles (10-2) could go a long way in determining this year’s title winner as Brentwood has already defeated both challengers on the other side of the bracket. Meanwhile Gatewood took down the War Eagles 27-10 back on Sept. 13 this season.
Those facts put a lot of weight on tonight’s semifinal meeting set at Brentwood in Sandersville. Both teams enter as No. 1 seeds having won their respective region championships, but the bracket dictates that the lower half of the bracket, Brentwood’s half, gets to host in like-seeded meetings.
“We’re thankful we’re playing the week of Thanksgiving in the semifinals,” Gatewood head coach Jeff Ratliff told The Union-Recorder. “It doesn’t matter where we play and I'm sure they’d tell you the same thing. We’re just happy to be playing. It just happens to be against Brentwood in Sandersville, so we’ll get ready and hopefully we’ll play our best.”
When asked what has brought his team back to the state semifinals in back-to-back years, Ratliff said that after figuring some things out up front offensively and an efficient defensive rotation early this season his team is playing at a high level right now.
“We’ve gotten better and better each week,” Ratliff told The Union-Recorder. “I always start with my seniors. We’re going to go as they go, and they’ve done a great job of leading the football team. We started off the year on kind of shaky ground trying to execute what we do, but we’ve gotten better each week so we’re hitting a pretty good stride right now.”
The Gators’ recent results back up the head coach’s claim. They finished the season with three straight shutouts and put up big numbers on offense as well having outscored those last three foes 174-0. The week before that crazy run, Oct. 18, was Gatewood’s last real test as it beat Southwest Georgia Academy 34-20 on the road. The team’s two losses came against AAA rival John Milledge and perennial GAPPS (Georgia Association of Private and Parochial Schools, formerly GICAA) champ Community Christian on Sept. 20. Since then, SGA is the only team that has posed a challenge for the defending champion Gators.
From the home sideline’s perspective, the Brentwood Eagles hold a resumé very similar to that of Gatewood. They’ve given up more points this season than the Gators, but have still enjoyed their fair share of one-sided results. As mentioned earlier, one of Brentwood’s two losses came over two months ago now to Gatewood in Eatonton while the other happened the week prior versus AAA championship hopeful John Milledge. Since those two losses where they scored 10 points in each ballgame, the Eagles have gone on an absolute tear averaging nearly 50 points in their last eight matchups. Brentwood actually holds a slight scoring edge over this week’s foe having totaled 500 points this season to Gatewood’s 489. Both numbers are actually pretty ludicrous.
“We play those guys every year so I have a lot of respect for Coach Brown (Bert, Brentwood head coach),” Ratliff said of his team’s semifinal opponent. “They’re going to run that wing T and they’re going to run it to perfection. Defensively, they’re pretty aggressive and this year is no different. They have a great group of seniors who have been in that system a while now, many of them I believe started as freshmen. They’re a solid group who has come together, so we’ve got our work cut out for us this week. Hopefully we’ve gotten a lot better since the last time they played us and I know for a fact they’ve gotten a lot better.”
Tonight’s GISA AA state semifinal kickoff between the Gators and Eagles is set for 7:30 p.m. in Sandersville.