By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here’s a look at some of the top games in Class A this weekend:
Our Lady of Mercy (3-0, unranked) at Athens Academy (2-0, unranked). This match up could have private school playoff implications down the road. For Athens Academy, it will be a slight upgrade over the competition the Spartans have faced thus far. For Mercy, the Spartans will be a step up in competition as well, but the game also will be a litmus test on how far the program has come since head coach Mike Earwood took over three seasons ago.
The Bobcats are now 16-7 since the arrival of Earwood and assistant head coach Glenn Griffin. That’s the same amount of victories Mercy had claimed in the program’s first nine years of playing varsity football.
“I told our players that I feel like they’ve already made strides,” Earwood said. “Athens Academy is a tradition rich program. They play soundly and they play hard every snap, and this will be a huge test for our program. I think we’ve come to the point where we can compete with a team with that kind of tradition.
“When you consider where we were two years ago, we had no shot,” Earwood said. “Now we have an expectation of being able to compete and win.”
A sign of Mercy’s rise is the talent level of its players. This season the Bobcats have their most talented senior class, led by Rashard Fant (DB/RB/WR/ATH, 6-0, 170) and Matt Frank (OL/DL, 6-3, 285), who will most likely be Mercy’s first players to sign with BCS conference schools. Fant has more than a dozen offers, including Florida State, Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Utah, Indiana and SMU. Frank, who is being heavily recruited by Memphis, has offers from Indiana, Georgia State and several other FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) schools.
Other seniors leading the team and getting noticed by colleges are Chauncey Laboo (RB/LB, 6-0, 220), Anthony Profitt (DB, 6-3, 190), Kalon Anthony (RB/DB, 5-10, 170), Michael Anidi (OL/DL, 6-0, 230), Chris Wesley (OL/LB, 5-10, 200) and Alex Willard (FB/LB, 5-11, 205).
But an even clearer indication of the development of the Mercy program is the number of talented underclassmen, including promising juniors Lynix Branch (DL/LB, 6-0, 250), Christian Coleman (DB/RB/ATH, 5-6, 145), Chris Hunt (TE/DL, 6-3, 240), Darryl Jackson (LB/OL, 6-0, 215), Delfayeo Matthews (DB/WR, 6-2, 180), Dylan Terrell (QB/DB, 5-10, 170), Kyle Wilkins (LB/OL, 5-11, 200) and Albert Wilson (DB/RB, 6-0, 180), sophomores Jamison Best (QB/RB, 5-10, 180), Richard Nguyen (RB/DB, 5-10, 160) and Jordan Thomas (LB/RB, 6-0, 220), and freshmen Charlie Feldner (QB/DB, 6-1, 165) and James Morris (OL/DL, 6-3, 210). Mercy for the first time also has a youth feeder program in place this season.
“I told our players we’re not a team anymore, we’re a program,” Earwood said. “Now we want to develop consistency to where we are not a flash in the pan. Playing Athens Academy, a team that is as well coached as any team you’ll find, will be a big test for us.”
For Athens Academy, this could be one of those magical years where everything comes together for a program that has been on of the state’s models of consistency. Since 1991, when head coach Michael Gunn took over, the Spartans have finished under .500 just once (1992, 5-5). This season the Spartans are led by a large senior class, 14, that includes Taylor Allen (RB/DB, 5-8, 175), Austin Chulty (QB, 5-8, 175), Jordan Lawson (WR/DB, 5-9, 170), Forest Leidberg (DB, 5-9, 175), Bobby Marshburn (TE, 6-2, 220), Charlie Newcomer (OL/DL, 6-2, 215) and Jimmy Robinson (6-0, 205).
“It’s just a great senior class. They’re great leaders on and off the field, and they deserve all the credit,” Gunn said. “They allow us as coaches to just do our jobs – coach. They take care of everything else.”
The current seniors were in the middle school program during the three-year stretch from 2006-2008, when the Spartans went 35-5, won two region titles and advanced to the Class A semi-finals at the Georgia Dome twice.
“Those kids can talk about that experience because they were at all those games,” Gunn said of his seniors. “We’re playing well now with those kids leading us and we want to get back to playing at that level.”
Darlington (1-1, unranked) at King’s Ridge Christian (3-0). This is another contest between a traditional power and an upstart looking to make its mark. Darlington, in Rome, has been playing football since the early 1900’s, with eight region titles and three state championships (1914, 1915 and 1998). The Tigers are led this season by senior quarterback Brad Butler, one of the best in Class A, and fellow seniors Chandler Duggan and Harold Antor.
King’s Ridge, in Alpharetta, is in just its third full varsity season in the Georgia High School Association, finishing 5-5 last two years. The Tigers’ quick start this season, in which they have out scored opponents 142-27, shows the development of their program.
“We knew we had kids who played for us as freshmen and sophomores,” said head coach Jeff Pickren. “Now they are at a point where they have gotten good experience and now they are stepping up. Our defense has done a great job of giving us a short field, and on offense our offensive coordinator Jason Couch has done a great job of getting the ball to a lot of people.”
An example of the growth and maturity of the program, Pickren said, was last week’s 48-20 win over Pace Academy. King’s Ridge tailed at one point 20-7. “But we never panicked,” Pickren said. “The kids believed in what we were telling them and what we were doing, and they kept playing hard. That was a really good sign for our program.”
Leading the way are seniors Julian Champ (DB/WR/RB, 5-10, 150) and Will Reagan (OL/DL, 6-1, 270), and juniors Josh Carter (LB/TE, 6-1, 170), Connor Henderson (DB/LB/RB, 5-10, 170), the team’s defensive MVP in 2011, and quarterback Bailey Miller (5-7, 155).
Friday’s game will provide a glimpse into whether or not King’s Ridge is ready to take that next step. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for Darlington. They are a traditional power in the state, they are well coached and their kids play extremely hard,” Pickren said. “It will be a challenge for our kids, but we’ve challenged them every week to be the best they can be on every play, in practice and in games.
“We’ve been a .500 program,” Pickren said. “Now we hope we can have even more success.”
Marion County (2-0, No. 7 in Class A at Miller County (2-1, unranked). After a week off, Marion will travel to Colquitt for a game that could influence the public school playoff picture. This will be the first official game between the two schools, both located in southwest Georgia, although they have face each other in scrimmages.
Marion, located in Buena Vista, is quickly establishing itself as a top program in Class A under the leadership of head coach Mike Swaney, who is now 23-3 in his third season and has won two region titles.
With 14 seniors leading the way, Swaney hopes the Eagles can improve upon last season’s early playoff exit. After going undefeated through the regular season, and winning in a rout in the first round, Marion’s offense, which had averaged more than 30 points per game, was throttled in a 10-7 loss to Bremen in Round 2.
Swaney said the offense is back playing at a high level, led by senior quarterback DeMarquez Mallard (6-0, 195), the 2011 Region 4 Offensive Player of the Year, senior running back James Taylor (6-0, 185), junior receiver Trae Swanson (6-0, 175) and junior kicker A.J. Wells (6-1, 170), considered by many to be the best in the state. Defensively, Marion is paced by senior all-state tackle DeQueszman Kelley (6-2, 285), who holds offers from Colorado State, Middle Tennessee and Troy, senior Luther Lee (6-2, 180), who plays defensive back, receiver and returns punts, and junior linebacker Brandon Green (6-1, 205).
Miller County’s lone loss this season was at the hands of a very good AA Early County team. The Pirates are led by running backs T.J. Means and Marvin Grant.
“We lost some good players on defense last year, so we’re still a work in progress on that side of the ball,” Swaney said. “We have some talent, but those kids are still learning. Miller County will be a big test for us, especially trying to deal with those two fast running backs they have. Our kids have seen them before [in scrimmages] but this will be a big test for us.”
Other games of note include:
No. 9 Charlton County (2-1) at AA Fitzgerald (2-1) … AA Rabun County (2-0) at Commerce (3-0) … No. 10 Emanuel County Institute (2-1) at Claxton (2-0) … First Presbyterian Day (1-1) at Pace Academy (1-2) … Brookstone (2-0) at AA Wesleyan (2-1).