50-in-50: Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy

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.

42 comments Add your comment

Swamp Lizard

May 24th, 2013
6:36 am

@ STC …. great interview with Coach Gess addressing the “recruiting” allegations. Looking forward to upcoming season, I’m a firm believer that it’s all won on the O-line & D-line, and ELCA looks to be strong on both. A lot has to happen to win it all ( Lady Luck ), but ELCA is the team to beat in Class A this year ….. Should find out pretty quick just how good this ELCA team is early in the season, travling to AAA Washington Co and then playing AAAAA Briarwood Academy to start the season. On the Private side of things …. I think you’ll see a strong Sav Christian team this year & look out for Prince Ave & Coach Jeff Herron ….. could see a repeat Championship game in the Dome again this year ( Prince / ELCA ).

BIG BOY

May 24th, 2013
7:29 am

OMG! Wow! Calling it “stupid” to say the ELCA recruits is “STUPID”!!!! Of course they recruit. Maybe the head coach isn’t the one calling these kids personally (because he’d be getting paid to do that in college if he wanted) but somebody is doing the work and somebody is spending the money. Please!
There is no doubt that these coaches at ELCA put in time and effort and do a great job building their program, but do act like everybody reading this doesn’t have a brain. Come on man.
and @ Swamp Lizard, if Prince Ave makes it back to the Dome you can bet your bottom dollar that Herron has recruited very well in a very short time! Prince lost everybody off a team that only finished 3rd in their own region last year! So, if they are back in Atlanta this year, well, you know.

GAHSFBFAN24

May 24th, 2013
8:01 am

BIG BOY, coach Herron doesn’t have to recruit. From what I hear, kids are lining up at his door hoping to have the opportunity to play for him. If you build a great program, kids and parents want to be apart of that program. ELCA has earned this status. Go ELCA!

Swamp Lizard

May 24th, 2013
8:16 am

@ BIG BOY …… like GAHSFBFAN24 has said ….. they are lining up at the door at Prince Ave and they have enough pieces in place to make a strong run again. I’m from South Ga & North Florida and have followed Coach Herron’s work, kids will flock to get in at Prince and he’ll put those kids in the right places to be very “solid” this year.

Catdoc

May 24th, 2013
8:32 am

They recruit. If you don’t think so you are only fooling yourself. I hope Herron tears em up if they get to play.

Swamp Lizard

May 24th, 2013
8:43 am

@ Catdoc …… I hope your sitting right beside me IF they do play. ;)

PBJ

May 24th, 2013
8:48 am

The coaches at the private schools probably don’t recruit, but the Dad’s and the boosters do.

Jefferson

May 24th, 2013
9:10 am

GAHSFBFAN24

May 24th, 2013
10:30 am

Let’s talk about ELCA football instead of all of this slander. What do you think of ELCA’s chance to repeat as state champions?

Karma

May 24th, 2013
10:40 am

If u believe for one second any private school doesnot recruit then u are mighty gullible. Elca is a very good school . I know that as I had a child go their but donot fool yourself. All of those athletes living in different counties just didnot “out of the blue” decide oh I want to go to Elca. Yes their sports program has blossomed in the last 4 or 5 years. You think their is a reason? Go figure. Yes I will also say this and it is a no brainier..public schools do too. By the way single A private basketball..move over they let the sheriff back in town(excel Christian boys bball)

S. Thomas Coleman

May 24th, 2013
10:43 am

@Swamp: Thanks for checking in. I figured this would be a lively conversation. I see 9 comments so far and our IT guys haven’t even loaded the picture to feature it prominently on the High School sports page!

I agree with you and GAHSFBFAN24, ELCA is the team to beat but Savannah Christian will be REALLY good, as will Prince Avenue, largely due to Coach Herron. George Walton will be a threat as well. I’d say, depending on how the pairings line up in the Top 16, those are the top four to watch.

But there are a couple of “sleepers” out there to key an eye on: FPD, Pace Academy and Our Lady of Mercy.

Thanks for reading and posting!

STC

Karma

May 24th, 2013
11:13 am

No wants to step up to the plate with an opinion on my comments. I guess you silently agree.

S. Thomas Coleman

May 24th, 2013
11:50 am

@Karma: If a student-athlete sees ELCA’s success and his/her parents decide to transfer said student-athlete to ELCA for what they believe will be better opportunities for success, that is NOT recruiting. If you have evidence of an ELCA coach, administrator, teacher or member of the staff actively working to persuade a student-athlete to withdraw from their current school to enroll at ELCA for athletic purposes, I’m sure the GHSA would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading and posting!

STC

big daddy

May 24th, 2013
11:55 am

simple truth: both private and open enrollment city schools recruit. simple fact. would like to see how many of the following school’s football players actually live inside the city limits listed: Buford, Gainesville, Calhoun, Jefferson, Carrollton, etc. for a VERY small “tuition”, anyone can play at these schools. my young kids go to Bremen and i pay about 1500 per child. what is the tuition at the above listed schools? I think Carrollton’s is below 500 bucks (could be wrong).

Karma

May 24th, 2013
12:06 pm

Thank u big daddy. Truth hurts.

Trojan94

May 24th, 2013
12:20 pm

Prove it name three kids on carrollton roaster that didn’t go thru the carrollton city school system. That’s million dollar question nobody with this kind of allegations can NEVER answer! All talk,that’s all I ever here.

Trojan94

May 24th, 2013
12:35 pm

Another thing Bremen is known its state titles in wrestling were any of those kids recruited? You pay $3000 plus a year for your kids to go to BREMEN and you on here trying put down carrollton unbelievable keep wasting your money.

Karma

May 24th, 2013
12:44 pm

I must agree with trojan94. I know the Carrollton head coach personally and is honest as they come ..classy act

Sandy Creek

May 24th, 2013
1:14 pm

Had this same argument with the Cartersville people when their 50 in 50 came out a few weeks ago.

I am NOT saying that city schools recruit. I am saying they have an advantage that are within the rules in place per GHSA. I am NOT saying that coaches of all sports aren’t great people and don’t work really hard and that kids and parents don’t either. I am saying city schools have a decided advantage.

Clearly there are tons of things that are to like about both city and private schools and places like that work very hard to make it an appealing place to send their kids.

But Trojan94, have you ever considered that maybe some of these students at Carrollton that pay a tuition did not start doing so in high school but rather in elementary? Sure, there is nothing wrong with that as it is by the rules and no one in their right mind is recruiting 8 year olds. But….that does lead me to one of the advantages that private schools and city schools have. They can have students from outside their district lines. Over a period of time, this can make a significant difference.

Again, just to reiterate, I am not saying that Carrollton, Calhoun, Cartersville (or any other city school) or private schools are doing anything wrong. I am not saying they are recruiting because I do not have evidence of such. I just want everyone to call a spade a spade and realize that city schools and private schools have some real advantages.

LoveFridayFootball

May 24th, 2013
1:51 pm

50 in 50 is a good name for this… Because it seems only 50% of the people actually know what they are talking about and the other 50 make up what sounds good. Lets see….if a team wins they must be cheating. If a kid moves over to ELCA and doesn’t make a “home” move then he/she sits out a yr of varsity sports. That happened just this past yr…but no one talks about that. Can we get back to talking football???!!! Speaking of which, @STC, it would have been nice if these team articles broke each team down (like a scouting report) and went more in depth about actual football. Id like to see more of what the teams have. Other than the mud slinging, good stuff!!!

S. Thomas Coleman

May 24th, 2013
3:05 pm

@LoveFridayFootball: It’s hard to have a real in-depth piece, breaking down a team’s schemes in the spring in high school because often times the key players are playing baseball or running track during spring practice. So you can’t get a true look. But I think we will have something like that in the weeks before the season kicks off the weekend of Aug. 23.

The season is just 3 months away! In the immortal words of Jets linebacker Bart Scott: “Can’t Wait!”

Thanks for reading and posting!

STC

Black123456789

May 24th, 2013
3:34 pm

Yes a lot of schools recruit and their coaches do too. Of the coach won’t admit in the paper. Behind every li is a little bit of truth! Most of Ga schools recruit, their time will come like the others

Golden Isles Fan

May 24th, 2013
7:36 pm

Go Camden County Wildcats!!!!!!

sportsnut

May 25th, 2013
2:08 am

The best recruiting tool any coach has is his record. Win and they will come. Congratulations to ELCA for reaching this point. That includes the staff, players, parents and fans in general.

Tift blue devilish

May 25th, 2013
7:54 am

Red Flag time when a coach says ” i don’t get paid for wins…I get paid to develop kids”. Baloney. A couple of losing years and lets see how much development ( whatever that means) amounts to.

Trojan94

May 25th, 2013
9:14 am

Sandy creek I understand and respect your point of view how ever when it comes to carrollton from top to bottom NOBODY can name more than 1 or 2 students on any given year that didn’t go all the way thru the city school system. Most of the time those students that transferred to the city schools is because parents found good jods

pioneer

May 25th, 2013
10:49 am

Parents recruit schools more than coaches recruit players. Common sense. Many public schools have simply become welfare stops and good parents want their kids out of them. As for Herron recruiting, north Georgians don’t know the man yet.

BIG BOY

May 25th, 2013
11:24 am

@pioneer….you do realize Herron came from North Georgia right? Winning a state championship there before coming t south Georgia….right? But, the school he is at now….who cares? Nobody should be worried about Herron on that level except others on that level. A good player would never leave a big program to play for him there.

big daddy

May 25th, 2013
11:47 am

hey trojan94, check out the latest school rankings in the ajc. not everybody that pays tuition does so because of athletics. just saying.

big daddy

May 25th, 2013
11:50 am

to your point, Carrollton may not bring in kids the way other city schools do. I too have heard great things about coach teague. but my gut feeling is, many of the powerhouses mentioned probably do.

LoveFridayFootball

May 25th, 2013
1:00 pm

@bigboy……..you think a program is “big” because of the student body count??? …..if so you are wrong! There are some 1A schools in this state with WAY better “programs” than the larger classification schools.

Trojan94

May 25th, 2013
8:59 pm

@big daddy I can’t speak for other public school system just carrollton’s. As for non athletes that a different matter all together but since this is a football blog I’ll just stick to gridiron matters.

Trojan94

May 25th, 2013
9:02 pm

But you could be right about other schools.

BIG BOY

May 27th, 2013
8:28 am

@Loving Fri….NO…a big PROGRAM…is a good program that is much larger than any class A school, sure…there are many A schools with better programs than some large HIGH SCHOOLS, but not big programs…some big schools just don’t have a good football program.

GO UG

May 27th, 2013
9:00 am

I live close to ELCA, those coaches put a lot of time and energy into their players. If a player wants personal development and growth this is the place to be. My only disagreement with the above comments is the comment about academics, I am sure ELCA has good academics but compare where they rank in GA academically compared to Union Grove, no comparison!
Great program, Coaches, Boosters, Parents and Fans…Go Chargers!

LoveFridayFootball

May 27th, 2013
6:09 pm

@GO UG…… I think an A student at UG or any other Public school would find it much more difficult to make that A at ELCA.

GO UG

May 28th, 2013
7:42 am

LoveFriday, you can’t be serious!

LoveFridayFootball

May 28th, 2013
8:04 am

I’ve seen it first hand with my son, and with other students…

Cold Hard Facts

May 28th, 2013
10:29 am

I love all this drama! Football is back, baby!

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May 28th, 2013
3:31 pm

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GO UG

May 29th, 2013
8:15 am

LoveFriday, you do know that UG is ranked in the top 3% of High Schools in the Nation and they have and stress a rigid curriculum. I will stop with that, Go Chargers!

LoveFridayFootball

May 29th, 2013
9:17 am

I’ve never questioned what they are doing at UG… I only said its more difficult to make A’s at ELCA than at a Henry Co public school. And I base that on my own son and what I hear from other students at ELCA that were once enrolled and making A’s at the other schools. I would never take anything from UG and my comments are not to put them down while raising ELCA up. Stated facts as has been noticed in my house and many others at ELCA.