TIFTON — They aren’t quite the Globetrotters, but Harlem High School might feel that way Friday night in their first round state football meeting with the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane.
Region 4’s No. 3 team, Harlem, located near Augusta, makes the trip down US 221 and 319 to Jaycee Stadium for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff. Fitzgerald Region 1-AA’s runner-up earned home field for this game by being the No. 2 seed.
The state playoffs mark virtually a new season in Georgia high school football.
Fitzgerald head coach Tucker Pruitt said you play well or you go home.
“The margin of error goes down significantly,” he said.
Both teams enter with 7-3 records. Fitzgerald’s losses are to Irwin County, Dodge County and Brooks County. The Bulldogs fell to Aquinas, Jefferson County and Hephzibah. The last of these losses knocked them into third place. It’s a good record, said Pruitt, adding Harlem is “battle-tested.”
The Hurricane last played two weeks ago, a 28-27 loss to Brooks for the region championship. In the meantime, they have been healing up some injuries from that game and are probably fortunate at this time of the season to be, he said, relatively healthy.
Fitzgerald’s production against Brooks came from the usual sources. Ethan Gordon returned a kickoff for a 91-yard touchdown. Justin Reliford tossed touchdown passes to Damien Devine and Ozzie Hampton.
For its part, Harlem is attempting to win its first state tournament game since 1974, a time so long ago that the largest Georgia High School Association division was Class AAA. Three trips to the big dance since then have ended cruelly in the first round, a 19-point loss to Mary Persons in 2001 being the closest of the three.
Fitzgerald has a task and a half ahead of them with this brand of Bulldogs. It’s not that the Hurricane does not know what Harlem is going to do; they know precisely what Harlem is going to do and that’s run the football with A.J. Brown.
“[Brown] is unreal,” said Pruitt. “He leads the state.”
Brown has 2,007 yards on the ground this season after gaining nearly 1,600 as a junior. He’s scored two or more touchdowns in every game except one, with a total of 22. No one has held him below 134 yards in any contest. Pruitt’s not confident Fitzgerald will fare well, either.
“I’m not sure we’re going to stop him,” said Pruitt. The Hurricane won’t be able be to shut him out, he said.
So, “We’ll have to score.”
Perhaps surprisingly, as well as Brown runs he does not catch many passes out of the backfield. MaxPreps stats only credit him with three catches this season. None have been longer than 10 yards. That does not mean Brown is solely running back. Pruitt said he will line up as quarterback a good bit.
Slowing Brown down is the primary objective of the Hurricane defense, but not the only one. Pruitt said Cameron Garnett is also a good running back.
On the defensive side, Harlem gives up 17 points per game. Two games were shutouts. Garnett has 12 tackles behind the line and Logan Etterle has 11.
Tonight’s winner will play either Swainsboro or Northeast (Macon). If Swainsboro, the game will be at Swainsboro. If Northeast pulls the upset, Harlem or Fitzgerald will host.