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By Kevin Price
Photography by Bo Carter
Ware County has had a bunch of great football teams.
But, the school hadn’t ever had one win a state championship until the 2022 Gators team did.
At long last, the Gators claimed the program’s first-ever state title with their convincing 38-13 victory
over Warner Robins on Dec. 10 at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.
“The community deserved this thing,”said Ware head coach Jason Strickland. “They have fought
tooth-and-nail forever and ever and ever. They’ve been so close so many times.”
This was the fourth time that Ware had played for a state title. The Gators played in the state final in
1961, 2007 and also 2012 before making the appearance in the title game this season.
Since the 2000 season, Ware has missed the playoffs only once. In that span, the Gators have been to
the quarterfinals in 10 seasons with the two previous trips to the state championship game and two
The state crown was also the first for Strickland who has been with the program for four seasons,
taking the Gators to the playoffs in all four years and as deep as the quarterfinals two years ago.
Strickland also took Fitzgerald to back-to-back state championship games during an earlier coaching
stop, but those teams fell in the title games.
The Gators made it through the season with a perfect record, too, winning all 14 games they played.
Ware’s opening game against Appling County in Baxley on Aug. 19 was wiped out by a inclement
weather and not rescheduled, so the Gators had to wait another week to kick off the 2022 campaign.
They did get to play on Aug. 26 and knocked off Richmond Hill 20-7 at home in Memorial Stadium to
kick start their year.
The next week, the Gators won 41-3 at Baldwin. Back home for Game 3 against Benedictine the
following Friday, the Gators got past the Cadets 14-10 on a rainy night in the Okefenokee Swamp.
Benedictine would also go on to win a state title in Class AAAA for the second straight season. On
Sept. 23, the Gators closed out their non-region schedule with a 22-16 victory over always-tough
Bainbridge in Waycross.
When October arrived, the Gators found themselves sitting atop the Class AAAAA rankings after
starting out the season ranked No. 7 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution weekly poll. The Gators were
also set to open Region 1-AAAAA play which they did on Oct. 7 following an off week as they thumped
Jenkins 42-14 in their league opener at home.
The next Friday night, the Gators posted their first shutout of the season on the road at Bradwell
Institute as they toppled the Tigers 48-0. The following game, the Gators again blanked the opposition
as they defeated Greenbrier 44-0 in the Swamp.
On Oct. 28, Ware traveled to Statesboro where the Gators rolled over the Blue Devils by 59-7 to set
the stage for its annual showdown with Coffee in the season finale which would decide the region
championship and top seed for the state playoffs. The Trojans had lost only one game overall and
were also a perfect 4-0 in the region, but when the rivals met in Douglas, the Gators flexed their
muscles while posting a 31-6 win to claim the region championship.
The state playoffs began the very next week, and Ware was guaranteed home games in the first two
rounds as a No. 1 seed. The Gators opened the the playoffs with a 55-13 triumph over Jones County
before knocking off Chamblee 24-7 in round two to reach the quarterfinals.
A universal coin flip by the Georgia High School Association for all state classes went in Ware’s favor
prior to the quarterfinals, so the Gators were again at home against a fellow No. 1 seed and familiar
foe Calhoun which ousted Ware from the playoffs last season in the second round. A year later, the
Gators avenged that bitter loss with a rousing 35-0 win to advance to the semifinals.
Again, a coin toss by the GHSA landed in the Gators’ favor, so they were at home for the semifinal
game against Dutchtown, which won Region 2-AAAAA by defeating Warner Robins in the regular
season. But, the Bulldogs weren’t about to beat the Gators in front of a raucous home crowd that
jammed into Memorial Stadium and saw their team click to a 31-7 victory after taking a 24-0 lead.
Finally back in the state title game, the Gators were up against another familiar opponent and one
that was certainly no stranger to the state championship game. Warner Robins was making its sixth
straight appearance in the title game and the Demons were playing for a third consecutive state
Ware and Warner Robins were members of the same region the previous two seasons before the
state reclassified its member schools again prior to this school year, putting the teams in different
regions this year. In 2020, the Demons defeated the Gators 22-19, but last year Ware dealt Warner
Robins its only loss of the season when the Gators knocked off the Demons 29-21 in Waycross to
open region play.
It was Ware’s time again in the 2022 title game. The Gators scored on four of their first five
possessions and jumped out to a 24-6 lead at halftime.
Ware’s defense, which was salty all season, forced two three-and-outs by the Demons to start the
game, and the Gators scored on their first two offensive series for a quick 14-0 lead.
Warner Robins intercepted a pass to start the second half and then needed only one play to score,
but the Gators put the game away with two touchdown-drives in the third quarter including one that
covered 99 yards.
The Gators totaled 474 yards in the game to 320 by Warner Robins. Ware finished with 218 yards
rushing and 256 passing. For the Gators, RJ Boyd ran for 132 yards on 19 carries while Dae’Jeaun Dennis rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Junior quarterback Niko Smith was 14-of-26 passing and threw for three scores. Two of his touchdown passes went to senior receiver Jarvis Hayes who caught six passes for a career-high 171 yards.
“It was a heckuva night for us offensively,” Strickland said.
For the Ware defense, senior linebacker Trey Hargrove, the 912 Defensive Player of the Year, had a
team-best seven solo tackles, three tackles for loss and also forced two fumbles. K.J. Baker and
Dewayne Birden intercepted passes for the Gators.
“I thought we were really good in all three phases,” Strickland noted.
For the season, the Gators averaged 36 points a game while allowing only 7.36. They gave up just 103
total points in 14 games. They won their games by an average of 28.6 points. Ware’s senior players finished their careers with a 41-8 varsity record, three region titles and the state championship.
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A weekly look at High School Athletics from around the #912.