Ware County polished off its perfect season with a historic win.
The Gators built a big first-half lead and went on to wallop Warner Robins 38-13 in the Class 5A state championship game on Saturday at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta. Ware finished a pristine 14-0 and showcased that its flagship defense was as good as advertised for coach Jason Strickland.
After three previous trips ended with title game losses, it was the first championship in Ware history. The team’s unbeaten record was a first, too.
A Niko Smith 19-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Hayes just four minutes in gave Ware a lead it wouldn’t come close to surrendering. DJ Davis ripped off a 41-yard touchdown run two minutes later and the rout was on. Smith was 14 of 26 passing for 256 yards and three touchdowns. Hayes had a monster game, hauling in six passes for 171 yards and two scores.
Warner Robins cut that deficit to 14-6 on the following possession but the Ware defense wasn’t about to relent.
The Gators entered having allowed just 90 points all season and had barely been tested in four previous playoff games. If any program was expected to solve that defensive unit, it had to be the Demons (10-5), a two-time defending state champion who were coming off an unbelievable statistical season in their 2021 state title.
Warner Robins put up a mindboggling 716 points last year, a total that ranks fifth in Georgia history, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association.
Against the Gators, the Demons couldn’t do much. Jamario Barkley had nine tackles and Trey Hargrove had eight, three for loss and forced a fumble on Warner Robins’ final drive.
When the Demons finally chipped away at that defense, Ware responded in furious fashion, with Smith guiding drive after drive up and down the field against Warner Robins. Ware’s most dominant drive of the game came late in the third quarter when Warner Robins downed its punt all the way back at the Ware 1. Smith unloaded a ball to Hayes that went for 36 yards. Six plays later, Smith hit Hayes for the dagger, a 39-yard strike that put Ware in front 38-13.
🚨GATORS WIN🚨— Ware County Football (@WareFootball) December 11, 2022
Your Ware County Gators are STATE CHAMPIONS!!! Thank you to all the fans that made the trip because you definitely made it feel like a home game!! The trophy is coming back to Waycross!!!! 🏆🐊 pic.twitter.com/e1H3zRVsDu
It was the first state title for coach Strickland, who got the Gators over the hump.
Ware hired Strickland after Franklin Stephens left for McEachern after the 2018 season. Stephens’ last game with the Gators ended with a 35-0 loss to Warner Robins in 2018. Four years later, it was Strickland leading Ware to a rout of the Demons to complete the mission. Strickland had two title game appearances in his tenure at Fitzgerland and also led Pierce County to the state semis in 2018 before leaving for Ware.