By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
ELCA Nation, your wait is over.
AJC.com’s “50-in-50” series brings you … the Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy Chargers.
Fans and supporters of the McDonough private school have wondered out loud for weeks about when ELCA would be profiled in the daily feature that has turned into a must-read for high school football fans.
Since joining the Georgia High Schools Association in 2004, ELCA has become one of the most successful programs in the state. Over the past five seasons, the Chargers are 55-10, and after a number of deep playoff runs without a championship, ELCA won its first last season in dominating fashion – 33-0 over Prince Avenue Christian.
Even though the title was won during the first season in which public schools and private schools in Georgia’s smallest classification competed for separate championships (Emanuel County Institute won the public school side), ELCA head coach Jonathan Gess said the victory was still sweet even though the Chargers and ECI didn’t settle things once and for all on the field.
“I don’t think it was tainted at all,” Gess said. “None of the private schools wanted the split in the first place, so [public schools] got what they wanted.
“Who knows if we would have beaten ECI. But then again, who knows if ECI would have beaten George Walton,” Gess said of the team ELCA downed 27-14 in the private school semi finals. “Not to take anything away from ECI, but [George Walton] was as good as anybody.”
But not as good as ELCA. The Chargers outscored opponents by an average margin of 44-7, and the team included five players that signed Division I scholarships, including RB/LB Keyante Green (Purdue) and DL Isaac Rochelle (Notre Dame).
“Last season was our best team by far,” said Gess, who is entering his seventh season at the school. “We were just so dominant on both sides of the ball.”
But while the Chargers’ success has bred a large and supportive fan base, it has brought out tons of detractors who accuse ELCA of illegally recruiting players, enticing them to leave their original high school and transfer. Gess said he tries to ignore the negative talk, but admitted that it is unsettling.
“The biggest thing is that it is annoying because we put a tremendous amount of time and energy everyday into making our program what it is,” Gess said. “I’m at school at 5:30 every morning and don’t go home until 6:30 at night. They don’t see the work our coaches put into helping our kids develop. They don’t know that Andrew [Williams, a heavily recruited junior] and Isaac [Rochelle, headed to Notre Dame] weren’t that good as ninth graders.
“When we got to ELCA we didn’t look at Lincoln County or Clinch County and think they were cheating or recruiting,” Gess said. “We thought they were really good and we wanted to be like them, so we got to work.”
Gess went on to say that recruiting talk is “stupid.”
“If I’m going to call a high school kid to get him to come to my school, I’m going to work in college so I can get paid for it,” Gess said. “Wins are appreciated at our school but I don’t get paid for wins. I get paid to develop young men.
“And I’ll say this, too,” Gess said. “Most of the best players in [Henry County] would not want to come [to ELCA] and be held to the academic and behavior standards that our kids are. People may not believe this, but we have more kids transfer out of our school than we have transfer in.”
Gess went a step further when addressing the allegations of illegal recruiting.
“Those people don’t know how racist they sound,” Gess said. “They may not be racists, but we have had some white kids enroll here for high school and no one said anything about them. But whenever a black kid comes here, it must be because they were recruited and they are getting a scholarship.
“It’s really insulting to the parents of kids like Jevius Terry and Marquis Griffin,” Gess said of two key members of the 2012 team, who are black, and transferred to ELCA. Both defensive backs, Terry signed with Troy, Griffin with Air Force. “Their parents made the financial sacrifice to send them here and pay tuition because they wanted their sons in a good environment.
“But our focus is on our team and getting better every day,” Gess said. “I like the attitude of this team. I like their work ethic and their passion.”
The Chargers are working on tweaking their offense and defense to be just as productive without Green, a three-time all-state performer at running back and line backer. Gess said the offense will run almost exclusively through rising senior quarterback Dalton Etheridge, who will direct more of a zone-read attack this season.
“Dalton is one of the best quarterbacks in the state,” Gess said. “Our offense will revolve around his ability to decide to hand the ball off, keep it or throw it. That will put a lot of pressure on defenses.”
On defense, Gess said not much will change, even with Green out of the picture. Williams and linebacker Josh Shockley will lead a unit that returns six starters.
“[Defensively] we’ll continue to do what we do,” Gess said. “We’ll put our best 11 out there and let them fly to the football and get after people.”
Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy Chargers
2012 record: 13-1, 6-0 in Region 5A, defeated Prince Avenue Christian (33-0) in the Class A Private School State Championship Game.
Starters returning: 7 offense, 6 defense
Key losses: DB DJ Curl (Charleston Southern), RB/LB Keyante Green (Purdue), DB/ATH Marquis Griffin (Air Force), C Jake Martin, DL Isaac Rochelle (Notre Dame), Jevius Terry (Troy)
Key returnees: WR David Carrandi, DB Bryson Durden, QB Dalton Etheridge, LB Josh Shockley, DL Andrew Williams
Schedule: Aug. 23 at Washington County, Aug. 30 vs. Briarwood Christian, Sept. 6 at Clinch County, Sept. 13 vs. Hapeville Charter, Sept. 27 vs. Holy Innocents’, Oct. 11 at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian, Oct. 18 vs. Our Lady of Mercy, Oct. 25 at Strong Rock, Nov. 1 vs. Pace Academy, Nov. 8 at Landmark Christian
Outlook: It has become a cliché but it is true. Great programs don’t rebuild, they reload. Such is the case with ELCA. The Chargers lost a lot of talent off of last season’s championship squad, but they have a lot of talent coming back and should be considered the favorite to make it two state titles in as many years.