By Tommy Gartrell
The Georgia High School Association adjusts regional alignments every two years. With school enrollments fluctuating, this process is designed to maintain fairness in scholastic athletics across the state, so during the 2020-21 school year, Pickens High School moves into a considerably different and geographically broader region.
Several notable changes are in store for the Dragons in 2020. Most notably, Gilmer County and Pickens County are not in the same region or sub-region for the first time since 1972, and for the first time in history, the two schools find themselves in different classifications. Gilmer dropped to triple A.
Fear not though, the classic football rivalry remains intact because the Dragons host the Bobcats to open the regular season on August 21st. They repeat as the season opener for the 2021 campaign in Ellijay which is the only nearby opponent on the schedule over the next two seasons.
The upcoming travel schedule is a far-flung odyssey which stretches in all directions for the Dragons and their fans. In round trip mileage, we will log 1,336 miles in 2020 and 2021 combined during football season. Yes. I mapped them all including a couple of locations that Google responded with “you cannot get there from here.”
Pickens Athletic Director Chris Parker said of the new region alignment. “We play where the GHSA puts us. We don't have any say over it.”
The region itself (Region 7- AAAA) consists of seven schools: Pickens, Cedartown, Ridgeland, Central of Carrollton, Heritage (Ringgold), Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield.
SE Whitfield elected not to play a region schedule following a winless (0-10) campaign and coaching change in 2019 though.
Replacing Gilmer and LaFayette with Central and Cedartown makes the whole region stronger and more difficult to navigate.
How do the Dragons stack up compared to their upcoming opponents?
That question remains impossible to answer with any degree of confidence. Pickens enjoyed tremendous success for most of the past decade including a perfect regular season (10-0) and region championship in 2018.
Few key members of that team remain now though, and for the first time since 2016, the Dragons must find a new quarterback to replace CJ Streicher. It almost feels like a dreaded yet inevitable rebuilding year (or two) awaits the program, but again, it is too soon to say with clarity. I can share the schedule and some background on the opponents however.
Pickens once again plays Dawson County in the Spring Game on May 15 in Jasper and the Dragons travel to West Hall High School on August 12 for a preseason scrimmage. The regular season opens a week later.
The Bobcats come to Jasper on August 21. Following three consecutive winless seasons, Gilmer rebounded with a 4-6 record in 2019 and the football program appears on the rise again. The Dragons won the last six meetings, but the ‘Cats own a better record in the all-time series (35-26-1).
Chatooga County hosts the Dragons on August 28th in Summerville, Georgia. The Indians were a playoff team in class AA each of the last five years including a 5-6 season in 2019. These two schools have never faced each other in football although Pickens lost to Summerville High School in 1958 (35-0) and 1959 (35-14).
The extremely familiar White County Warriors host the Dragons on September 4th in Cleveland, Georgia. White dropped to class AAA after a 5-5 campaign in 2019 and is regioned with Gilmer for the next two seasons. Pickens has played the Warriors 43 times in history for a 20-23 record. Only Gilmer has played the Dragons more times than White County.
Pickens hosts Coosa which claimed two state titles in the 1960s on September 11th. These two teams played to a tie in a preseason scrimmage three years ago, but they have not faced each other during the regular season since 1999. The Eagles are in class AA and suffered through a 1-9 season last year. Overall, the Dragons claim a 4-2 lead against Coosa.
Another school which used to be a staple opponent of the Dragons is Union County. The Panthers, who are class double A, host Pickens in Blairsville on September 18th. Both teams have five wins each in head to head action. They have not faced one another since 1991 though. In recent years, Union County’s football program has become quite successful with playoff berths in all of the past five seasons and a 10-2 record in 2019.
Region play begins for the Dragons on October 2nd at Cedartown which began playing high school football in 1907. The once powerful Bulldogs, who shared a region with Pickens for several years, haven’t won a region championship in 19 years, but they reached the AAAA playoffs in four of the last five seasons which includes a 5-6 record during 2019 in one of the strongest regions in Georgia. Pickens has one win in six football games versus Cedartown. That victory came in 2012 as former University of Minnesota star Shannon Brooks matched current NFL standout Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns) yard for yard in a 54-35 Dragon triumph. It remains one of the most exciting high school ballgames that I have witnessed in my four decades of covering prep sports.
Defending region champion Ridgeland comes to Jasper on October 9th. The Panthers are a familiar foe and a perennial playoff team. They’ve won the region in seven of the past 12 seasons and played for the state title in 2012. Pickens holds a 4-4 record versus Ridgeland though.
On October 16th, the Dragons travel south of I-20 to face Central of Carrollton. The Lions were once prominent in Georgia’s prep football circles. They won consecutive state championships in 1987 and 1988, but they have not had a winning season since 2015. Historically, Pickens lost its only meeting with them in the 1997 state playoffs (47-9).
Pickens’ open week comes on October 23rd.
On October 30th, the Dragons host the familiar Heritage (Ringgold) Generals who took second in the region last year and defeated the Dragons by a 21-20 final score in Ringgold. Pickens owns a 5-6 record all-time against the Generals.
For the regular season finale, the Dragons host another traditional region rival and state playoff veteran in Northwest Whitfield. The Bruins reached the playoffs during all of the last five years, but Pickens has won the last two meetings. The Dragons are 3-6 all-time against NW.