By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Supporters and fans of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy are ecstatic about the Chargers advancing to the Class A private school championship game.
In fact, one fan in particular is so excited that he arrived early for the game. Uriah Paul Gess, the first child of ELCA head coach Jonathan Gess and his wife Dee, came bursting into the world on Wednesday, almost a week ahead of schedule. There is no truth to the rumor that he has already joined ELCA’s plentiful watch list of college football prospects.
“I don’t know about that. Just as long as when he plays, he plays hard,” Gess said. “I guess he wanted to be here to see the game, too. “
In the minds of many, ELCA’s advancement to the championship game has been an afterthought, as they have dominated opponents by an average score of 45-8. But that has not been the attitude within the Charger program, where the mantra all season has been to take one game at a time. Gess said the team approached this week of practice the same way.
“When we won Friday, it was exciting because we could say that we finally made it, we knocked that wall down,” Gess said. “But then on Sunday, it was time to get at it again. Time to prepare for another tough opponent in a big game.”
That opponent, Prince Avenue Christian, grinded its way to the finals. The Wolverines were touted as favorites to win Region 8 and make a deep run into the post season, after last year’s 13-1 finish. But four of PAC’s best players – including the son of head coach Mark Farriba – left the school and the team prior to the start of fall practice because of an off campus incident.
But the team adjusted, persevered and kept winning, including a 28-12 triumph in Week 3 over last year’s state champs, Savannah Christian, which had dealt PAC its only loss last season, 27-0 in the semifinals.
“That was a big win for us,” Farriba said. “Then when we beat Darlington (42-21) and Athens Academy (24-7) in the first two rounds of the playoffs, our confidence really grew.”
The Wolverines will need that confidence against the Chargers’ talented roster, which features Division I players like Region 5 player of the year linebacker/running back Keyante Green (committed to Purdue), two-way lineman Isaac Rochelle (Notre Dame), and all-region performers safety/receiver DJ Curl, cornerback/receiver Jevius Terry and cornerback/receiver Marquis Griffin – all seniors.
“They are just a dangerous team all around,” Farriba said. “They have players all over the field and don’t rely on just one guy. They’re so explosive that if you stop one guy, another one can hurt you.
“We just have to do what we do,” Farriba said. “It’s no secret. We have to control the ball, play good defense and not give up big plays on special teams.”
Gess believes PAC’s lineup is just as formidable.
“They have a couple of guys we think are definitely D-1 players, and the rest of their team is made up of very good high school football players who play with amazing passion,” Gess said. “It’s incredible. It’s like they have 14 future Navy seals over there. And coach Farriba and [defensive coordinator Richard] Bell are two of the greatest coaches in the state who have been pretty darn successful.”
Though this is his first foray into the Georgia High School Association finals, Farriba led five teams to the finals in the Georgia Independent Schools Association, winning titles in 1985 and 2004. While each team is different, Farriba said his current club shares similar qualities to the other teams he took to the finals.
“The common thread is being accountable to everybody else around you on the team, knowing that you are a part of something that is bigger than you are,” Farriba said.
That same selfless attitude has propelled ELCA this season, according to Gess.
“This is a special group of juniors and seniors. They’ve been through it together, and that’s the key,” Gess said of the group of players that is 36-4 over the last three seasons. “I told them, win or lose, I love them. They key is to keep playing for each other the way they have.”