The 2017 Bartow County football season saw mixed results, as a couple of teams met their preseason expectations and a couple fell short.
The four county schools combined for a 20-23 record, which was the worst win percentage in the county since 2011.
Cartersville once again carried the flag for Bartow, winning a sixth consecutive region title and holding the No. 1 ranking in the state for much of the year while demolishing nearly every opponent along the way. The Canes were on pace to break the record for most points scored in a season, and were doing it while rarely playing starters in the second half.
However, the Canes’ season came to an unexpectedly premature end in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs to eventual champ Blessed Trinity.
The Canes still finished No. 3 in the final state polls, but they saw their 41-game win streak come to an end and their dreams of becoming one of the few teams ever to win three straight state titles dashed.
Adairsville, meanwhile, had more modest goals, and were looking to make the state playoffs after its streak of five consecutive postseason appearances was snapped in 2016. The Tigers delivered on their preseason goals and got into the playoffs with a win over Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe in the final game of the regular season.
Adairsville then lost to eventual state-semifinalist Cedar Grove, but the Tigers still finished with a winning record of 6-5.
The turnaround for Adairsville came in its second game against Cass when Mason Boswell took over at quarterback, and that was also the turning point for the 2017 Cass Colonels.
Cass did not earn a win on the season, despite regularly playing winning teams close. The Colonels outplayed Sonoraville, but they still lost by one point in the second game of the year, and then lost two other one-score games in region play.
Woodland, by beating Cass and Hiram in Region 7-AAAAA, elevated out of the basement in the region and won more than one game for the first time in four years.
Woodland finished with a 3-7 record, including a thrilling overtime win over Rockmart early in the season to break a steak of 17 consecutive losses.
It was a dramatic turnaround for a team that had won just one game combined over the previous three years, and with most of the team returning in 2018, the Wildcats have plenty to build on.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Trevor Lawrence — Cartersville
The Cartersville quarterback accomplished nearly every individual and team accolade one could over the span of a four-year high school career.
He went 52-2 as a starter and won two state championships, leading to the best run in Cartersville program history.
He was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia both as a junior and a senior, and he was one of three juniors ever to be named the Atlanta Journal-Constitution All-Classification Player of the Year.
He recently was named the Army All-American Player of the Year after being the first-ever freshman invited to the prestigious US Army All-American Bowl.
He was the region player of the year all four seasons and the Class 4A Player of the Year three times, not including being named the Class 4A Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman.
He helped lead the Cartersville offense to its biggest scoring seasons ever, and he quarterbacked the Canes to what was the fourth-most points scored in a season in state history as of 2016.
The Clemson enrollee rounded out that illustrious career by throwing for 3,290 yards as a senior with 41 passing touchdowns to, remarkably, just one interception. That interception came early in the season, and he had a streak of 246 pass attempts without a pick to end the year.
Overall, he completed 69 percent of his 255 attempts, averaging 13 yards per attempt, and threw a touchdown every six passes.
There are a lot of first-evers and most-evers attached to Lawrence’s career, but the 13,902 career passing yards and 161 career passing touchdowns are perhaps the most significant accomplishments, as they eclipsed Deshaun Watson’s career records in the state.
The marks are not only significant because of the success Watson has gone on to have, but also because they help to quantify the impact Lawrence had, which often exceeded the football field and bled into the Cartersville community.
The records also reaffirm Lawrence’s place in the state’s rich football history. Between the individual and team success, and recruiting standing as the No. 1-rated player in the country, Lawrence has had, arguably, the greatest high school football career of any player ever in the state of Georgia.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Rico Frye — Cartersville
Frye already had rushed for more than 4,000 career yards and had a reputation as one of the best running backs in the state before he transferred to Cartersville after his junior year at Creekside.
Still, despite knowing what the Canes were getting with Frye, it was hard not to be blown away while watching him play his senior season. The running back combined uncanny balance, patience and agility with bruising viciousness when finishing a run.
He acclimated to Cartersville’s offensive scheme quickly and molded his talents to fit the team. And, as a result, he became just as important as a pass blocker and dynamic receiver out of the backfield as he was when he took a handoff.
He finished his senior year with 1,064 yards rushing on 125 carries, an 8.5-yard average, and scored 22 touchdowns on the ground. He added 599 receiving yards on 28 receptions with five touchdowns.
In the process, he broke school records in the weight room and was an early signee to Division-I Bowling Green.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
JaCorey Johns — Cartersville
Johns went from rarely-used third-down pass rusher as a junior to the Region 5-AAAA Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
Of course, he looked every bit the part of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, checking in at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds.
As outside linebackers are called on to do in Cartersville’s defense, he was a terror when rushing off the edge, but he also was athletic enough to drop back in pass coverage. As a result, he had the rare stat combination of 5 1/2 sacks and two interceptions this season. He also had 46 tackles, 10 1/2 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.
For his efforts, the Wake Forest signee was named to both major all-state teams, Georgia Sports Writers Association and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Because of his physical profile and his improvement from his junior to senior season, college coaches all year felt like his best football was ahead of him, and Johns could become a major steal in the ACC.
ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Mason Boswell — Adairsville
Whether it was at quarterback, running back, safety or on special teams, Boswell was frequently the best player on the field during Adairsville games this season.
There was palpable positive energy emitted when he took over at quarterback during the game against Cass in the second game of the season, and he took the reins of the team for good that day when he led the comeback win.
From there, he went on to become a first-team all-region selection while boosting the Tigers to the postseason. He ran for 209 yards with three touchdowns in Adairsville’s clinching win to go to the state playoffs, including 137 yards on three critical possessions in the second half.
It was just one of the many big games Boswell had on the year, and he finished with 876 rushing yards on 121 attempts, an 11 yards-per-carry average, and scored 15 rushing touchdowns. He also passed for 1,264 yards with 11 touchdowns.
It was a constant balancing act for the Adairsville coaching staff in trying to play Boswell on both sides of the ball, but it was hard to discern which side Boswell was better on. He totaled 54 tackles, three interceptions, a forced fumble and two pass breakups at safety.
Just a junior, Boswell will lead the Tigers next season and is likely to pick up interest from major colleges.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jonathan Cruz — Cartersville
For all the accolades and distinctions of Lawrence, his classmate, Cruz, carved out his own place among the greats at Cartersville with his four-year career.
After taking over as the kicker as a freshman, he scored 403 career points, which is assuredly a school record, if not one that would rank among the state’s all-time leaders among kickers.
One of the most important characteristics of a kicker is a knack for performing in the clutch, and Cruz kicked and punted his best in critical moments, as evidenced by what he achieved in state championship games as a sophomore and junior with long field goals and perfectly placed punts.
He once again proved clutch in the state playoffs as a senior when he nailed a 55-yarder in the second quarter against Blessed Trinity, which not only eclipsed Collin Barber’s 54-yarder in 2010 for the longest in Canes history, it also put him 24th on the state’s all-time list. Additionally, the 55-yarder made it three consecutive years in which Cruz made a 50-yard-plus field goal.
He was named all-state after his senior year when he made 72-of-72 PATs, made 6-of-8 field goals, kicked 81 touchbacks and had a 44.7-yard punting average.
Justice Carter — Woodland
Carter missed two full games with injury and most of a third. That makes his junior year statistics even more impressive. He rushed for 702 yards on 97 carries (7.2 average) with two touchdowns, averaging about 100 yards rushing per game played. He also was second on the team in receiving with 133 yards on 10 receptions.
The diminutive Carter had a knack for slipping through holes and making defenders miss at the second level, which is why he’ll be expected to carry the load on offense next season for the Wildcats.
T.J. Horton — Cartersville
Horton was a JV quarterback as a sophomore and a part-time receiver as a junior, but he led the Canes in receiving as a senior, which was saying a lot in the team’s talented receiving corps. Horton had 746 receiving yards, on 53 catches with 10 touchdowns.
He was the model of consistency, registering less than 40 yards receiving just twice all year. His best game came against Bartram Trail, when he had 135 yards on six catches with two touchdowns in front of a national TV audience.
The 6-foot-3, two-sport athlete is signed to Division-I UT-Chattanooga to play college football after being named to the all-region first team.
E.J. Turner — Cartersville
The Kansas State-bound Turner was Cartersville’s most dynamic receiver after the catch. He combined college-level athleticism and height with a penchant for winning jump balls by high-pointing the football.
He was a second-team all-region selection after accumulating 727 yards on 36 receptions, a 20.2 yards-per-catch average, with a team-leading 11 receiving touchdowns.
He also was the team’s kick returner, as well as the most frequent highlight provider.
JKobe Orr — Cartersville
On a lesser team, Orr would have been the No. 1 receiving option. On the Canes, he just added to an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions.
Athletic and strong with good height, Orr regularly trucked defenders after making the catch. He also was one of the team’s best big-play threats, averaging an impressive 23.1 yards per reception.
He finished the year with 600 yards on 26 receptions and seven touchdowns.
Travon Branch — Adairsville
Branch didn’t touch the ball a whole lot on offense, but when he did, there was a good chance it was going for a big play. Arguably the fastest player
in the county, Branch had 37 rushing attempts for 302 yards and two touchdowns. He also had nine receptions for 237 yards and two touchdowns in the passing game.
Perhaps his biggest impact was as a kick returner, though, where he had 597 yards on 19 returns with a touchdown, giving the senior 1,136 all-purpose yards for the year.
Seven Richards — Cass
A state champ in the heavyweight division as a junior, Richards was the last person defensive tackles wanted to match up with in the trenches. He regularly mauled his opponent at the line of scrimmage, and he was the player Cass ran behind in the most important situations.
He led the team in weekly blocking grades and highlight pancake blocks, especially when pulling from right guard, and was a first team all-region selection.
Richards is currently seeking his second straight state wrestling title, but after that, he’ll head off to Jacksonville University to play Division-I football.
Nick Root — Cartersville
An all-state selection, Root finally got the statewide recognition he deserved for his impact on Cartersville’s offensive line. He was already named all-region all three years as a starter at right tackle for the Canes, and he was instrumental in protecting Lawrence and opening up holes in the run game.
He frequently matched up with some of the elite pass rushers in the state and stonewalled them, while being athletic enough to block downfield on Cartersville’s oft-used screen plays.
Bryce Wilkins — Cartersville
Another three-year starter and two-time all-region selection on the offensive line, Wilkins was as good of a lineman as any in the area. Listed at 5-foot-8, he regulary outmuscled much bigger players from his right guard position, and if he were a few inches taller, would have the college coaches swooning over him. Still, he’ll be able to play at the next level thanks to the impressive tape he built the last couple of years, and he was instrumental in the Canes’ recent run of success as one of the leaders of the team.
Maddox Teems — Adairsville
Head coach Eric Bishop has called Teems one of the best linemen to come through the Tiger program, and he showed why every Friday night.
Teems was as stout in the run game from the guard position as he was in the passing game. And, while big and strong enough to move defensive tackles, he was athletic and versatile enough to pull and block on the edge.
In addition, Teems was a three-year starter, a first-team all-region selection and was an exemplary leader in the locker room for Adairsville.
Austin Costlow — Woodland
A two-year starter for the Wildcats, Costlow was the team’s best offensive lineman for a significantly improved offense. At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds Costlow was big enough to man the right tackle position in a region with multiple Division-I edge rushers, but his physicality at the point of attack is what set him apart.
Rodney Richards — Cass
Of Richards’ 35 tackles this season, 19 were for loss and a county-leading seven were sacks. That sort of playmaking production in the backfield is what made Richards the most disruptive force in Bartow in 2017.
Just a junior, Richards will be one of the best defensive players returning next season. Cass head coach Bobby Hughes will build next year’s defense around Richards, whom Hughes called the emotional leader of the team.
Kurtis Feanny — Woodland
Woodland head coach Tony Plott called Feanny “as dominant as anyone in our region” in his senior season. That’s high praise considering his position, defensive end, and all the high-major college prospects along the defensive front in the most competitive region in Class 5A.
Feanny, at 6-foot-1, 260 pounds, was one of the strongest linemen in the county, and he used his strength and athleticism to record 64 tackles, six for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Feanny was a four-year starter, but he really became the dominant force at the point of attack as a senior when he was named second-team all-region.
Chandler Shankles — Adairsville
Shankles added much-needed physicality along the defensive front for Adairsville, despite only tipping the scales at 210 pounds.
After Adairsville lost all of its starting defensive linemen from 2016, Shankles stepped up to fill the void and fill the stat sheet. The junior defensive end had 53 total tackles, an impressive 15 for loss, and added three sacks.
Darian Poellnitz — Cartersville
Possibly what’s most impressive about Poellnitz’s distinguished career as a Cane was that he was a mainstay on defense for one of the best programs in the state since his sophomore year.
He was a three-time all-region selection and one of Cartersville’s best defensive players all three years.
During the offseason, he overcame an injury he suffered in last year’s state championship game, and he went on to record 50 tackles, eight for loss, and a sack. Those numbers are not as impressive as his previous two years’ production, but Poellnitz and the Canes’ defense was usually off the field so fast with the game in hand, he regularly saw less than half the snaps in a game.
Tripp Breeden — Cass
Over the past three years, if you looked around the area of the ballcarrier after a tackle, chances are you saw No. 45. While Breeden didn’t create as many turnovers as he did his junior year, he still was the tackling machine he’s always been. The state championship wrestler recorded 100 total takedowns, including a county-leading 20 for loss.
Breeden was one of the best defensive players in the region, was a first-team all-region selection, and probably deserved all-state recognition as well.
He was the unequivocal team leader of the Colonels, not just this season, but for the last three.
Dakota Hughes — Adairsville
Listed at 6-3, 225 pounds, the big-bodied senior could run sideline to sideline with any linebacker in the area. However, he not only recorded tackles but also regularly levied a big hit in the process.
He led the county with 111 total tackles — 10 went for losses and three more for sacks. He also forced a fumble and had two pass breakups, demonstrating his versatility.
He was moved from outside linebacker to inside at times, as the need presented itself. Had he not missed the last two games with injury, he could have put up even bigger numbers. He suffered the season-ending injury in the ninth game of the year after recording 10 tackles, three for loss, a sack and a 75-yard touchdown reception against Haralson County.
Nyvin Nelson — Cartersville
The UT-Chattanooga signee was the biggest hitter in the county each of the last two years. He was a key cog at middle linebacker for the past three seasons, and he was rewarded with a first-team all-region selection as a senior.
He had 55 tackles, five for loss, three sacks and a pass breakup his last year at Cartersville, but the statistics are not indicative of his impact on the stout Canes defense. He made the defensive calls from middle linebacker and was the “bell cow” of the Cartersville defense, according to head coach Joey King, in addition to being one of the primary leaders in the locker room.
Austin Potter — Woodland
Potter was not expected to be the kind of impact player he became when the season began. However, playing on the scout team during the preseason, Plott noticed his team couldn’t block the junior outside linebacker and promptly inserted him into the starting lineup.
The move paid dividends, as Potter had 80 tackles on the year, including a couple of games with 15-plus tackles. He also forced two fumbles and his pick-6 late in the game against Cass sealed the win and gave Woodland its first winning record at any point in a season since September 2011.
Bryce Burgess — Adairsville
The senior selflessly moved from quarterback to the slot on offense, while playing defense and contributing on special teams. And whichever role Burgess was tasked with, he excelled in. His defensive numbers were the most impressive, though, as he recorded 108 tackles, four for loss and had a county-leading 10 pass breakups.
Illustrating his versatility, Burgess had 484 rushing yards on 73 carries with five touchdowns on offense, adding 10 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver.
Burgess’ all-around performance was as important to Adairsville as any county player’s contributions in 2017, and he was rewarded with a first-team all-region selection.
Titus Jones — Woodland
Plott frequently has called Jones one of the best safeties in the state, and the younger brother of last season’s county defensive player of the year, Emmanuel, backed his coach’s statements up with an all-region junior season.
Jones had 104 total tackles on the year, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble, four pass breakups and two blocked field goals.
The long, rangy Jones was consistent, and he only had two games without recording at least 10 tackles.
Like his brother, he will be a steal for whichever college program wins his services, and he has already begun generating heavy interest.
Marko Dudley — Cartersville
The next in a long line of great Cartersville defensive backs, Dudley’s sophomore year in 2017 was a taste of what is expected to be a noteworthy career.
He, along with fellow sophomore defensive back Marquail Coaxum, played beyond their years with impressive instincts and football acumen while flying all over the field.
The first-team all-region selection totalled 45 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and three pass breakups on the year.
Cameron Gonyea — Cass
The 6-foot-2 senior safety has been one of Cass’ best defensive players each of the last two years. However, when Cass was looking for some much-needed firepower on the other side of the ball, the Colonels’ turned to Gonyea. He was far and away Cass’ most effective weapon, registering 510 yards on 26 receptions with six touchdowns.
Those six touchdowns mostly came on deep fly routes, and Gonyea’s superb ball skills he exhibited regulary at safety made the play Cass’ most successful on offense.
He also had 38 tackles, an interception and a pass breakup in his primary role at safety.
HONORABLE MENTION: Adairsville — Savaun Henderson, Ethan Belcher, Christian Steele, Cody Henderson, Reed Hughes, Nic Jackson, Joseph Adcock; Cartersville — Demetrious Winters, Alex Corrigan, Jackson Lowe, Kaleb Chatmon, Grant Harris, Carson Murray, Bradley Kirk, Evan Williams, Bobby Harris, Isaiah Chaney; Cass — Evan Hinton, Zach Hall, Eathan Mitchell, Blake Carrington, Johnny Bootz, Tyrese Dawson, Macland Shay, DeMarco Moore; Woodland — Zach Pitner, Brody Williams, Demarcus Williams, Seth Johnson, Dustin Ivie, Jaylen Ballard.