By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here is a look at the remaining eight games in the playoffs, along with an installment of “Coach Speak,” featuring Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy’s Jonathan Gess, Seminole County’s Alan Ingram and Aquinas’ James Leonard, and another look at the brackets.
No. 16 Wilkinson County (4-6) at No. 1 Seminole County (10-0). Seminole County went undefeated through the regular season for the first time since 1973 en route to winning its third consecutive Region 1 title. Seminole County, located in Donalsonville in southwest Georgia on the Florida border, was knocked out in the second round of last season’s public school playoffs by eventual runner up Dooly County (34-28). Wilkinson County made the tournament despite having a losing record. The teams met for the first time in the second round of the 2011 state playoffs, with Seminole County emerging with a 28-7 win.
No. 15 Turner County (4-6) at No. 2 Marion County (9-1). Marion County, located in Buena Vista just outside of Columbus, has won three of the last four Region 4 titles and is 39-7 over that stretch. The Eagles had their perfect regular season blemished by Hawkinsville (14-10) on Nov. 1. It would have been the second time Marion County (2011) finished 10-0. The Eagles are trying to advance past the state quarterfinals for the first time in school history. They were knocked out by Wilcox County in last season’s quarter finals. Tuner County, like Wilkinson County, advanced to the playoffs in spite of finishing below .500. Marion County won the only other meeting between the two, 64-26, in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.
No. 14 Claxton (6-4) at No. 3 Clinch County (7-3). Clinch County, located on the Florida border in south central Georgia, is traditionally one of the state’s top programs but the Panthers took a step back last season when they finished with their worst record (4-6) since 1985. After starting 1-3 this season, Clinch County has won six straight entering the playoffs and won the school’s 16th region title. The Panthers won the state title in 2010. Claxton, the county seat of Evans County near Savannah, missed the playoffs last season with the same 6-4 record. The Tigers picked up a huge win in the regular season finale, 21-14, over defending public school state champion Emanuel County Institute. Clinch County has won both of the previous meetings, 20-6 in the second round of the 2001 state playoffs, and 47-20 in the first round of the 2007 playoffs.
No. 13 Trion (5-4) at No. 4 Irwin County (8-1-1). This is a rematch of last season’s first round game, which Trion won 31-6. Irwin County, located about 90 minutes south of Macon, is back in the playoffs for two consecutive seasons for the first time since a string of eight straight appearances from 1997 to 2004. The only blemishes on Irwin County’s record are a 20-20 tie against Class AA Fitzgerald back on Sept. 6, and a 30-24 loss to Clinch County Oct. 11. Trion started the season 3-0, but lost four of its last six games including the last two.
No.. 16 Athens Christian (5-5) at No. 1 Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy (9-0). ELCA is going after its second consecutive private school state title and has established itself as one of the state’s most dominant programs. The Chargers have advanced at least as far as the state quarterfinals the last three seasons and are a combined 46-4 since 2010. Despite losing five Division 1 players off last year’s team (four FBS, one FCS), this year’s squad has been virtually unstoppable. The offense, led by senior quarterback Dalton Etheridge, is averaging 41 points per game while the defense, led by defensive end Andrew Williams and linebacker Josh Shockley, has yielded an average of just four points per game. ELCA had its opening game against Class AAA Washington County (11-0) cancelled just before halftime due to threatening weather. Athens Christian battled its way into the playoffs with clutch wins in the final two weeks of the season to earn enough points to qualify for the final playoff spot on the private school side. On Nov. 1, the Eagles beat George Walton Academy 44-42 on the final play of the game, a 20-yard touchdown pass from Brett Branton to Stephon Logan. Athens Christian then smothered crosstown rival Athens Academy, 21-3, in the season finale on Nov. 7. ELCA has won all four previous meetings between the two schools by a combined score of 144-34.
No. 15 St. Anne-Pacelli (7-3) at No. 2 Mount Pisgah Christian (10-0). The Patriots finished the regular season 10-0 for the first time and won the program’s first region title. Mt. Pisgah, located in Johns Creek, advanced to the private school playoffs last season for the first time since the school joined the Georgia High Schools Association in 2006. The Patriots were the No. 16 seed and led then-No. 1 seeded Athens Academy, 13-0, in the second half before eventually losing, 17-13. St. Anne-Pacelli of Columbus is undergoing a resurgence at the hands of head coach Randy Grace, now in his third season. The Vikings are back in the post season for the first time since 2007. They began the season 5-0, but are 2-3 since. This is the first meeting between the two schools.
No. 13 First Presbyterian Day (6-4) at No. 4 Calvary Day (8-2). Calvary Day, in Savannah, won its first region title since 1996 and is currently riding an eight-game winning streak, including a 40-14 dismantling of Johnson County, the No. 5 seed on the public school side, in the Region 3 title game on Nov. 8. FPD, located in Macon, began the season 1-3 but reeled off five straight wins before losing the season finale to Region 7 champion Aquinas, 33-32, on Nov. 8. This is the first meeting between the two schools.
No. 11 Our Lady of Mercy (5-5) at No. 6 Mount Paran Christian (8-2). This is a rematch of the season opener for both teams, which Mt. Paran won handily, 36-7. Mt. Paran, located in Kennesaw, is one of the few teams in the state running a version of the old single-wing offense. The Eagles have advanced to the playoffs in three of the program’s four varsity seasons. Mercy is in the playoffs for the second consecutive season for the first time in school history, under the leadership of head coach Mike Earwood, in his fourth season at the Fayetteville school. The Bobcats began the season 0-3 and played one of the state’s toughest regular season schedules as the combined record of their 10 opponents was 64-35.
ELCA head coach Jonathan Gess on being the No. 1 private school seed: “I’ve been really impressed with this team. I thought we would be pretty good but I didn’t expect us to have the season we’re having in terms of the winning margins we’ve had. When you have a team that has five [NCAA] Division I kids on it and wins a state championship, and you lose those kids the next season you expect a bit of a drop off. But we still have guys like [senior quarterback] Dalton [Etheridge] and [senior defensive end] Andrew [Williams] and [senior linebacker Josh] Shockley, and a bunch of talented guys who play hard and play together.
“Their focus has been to put all their energy into each opponent, and then worry about the next opponent. The goal has been to be the best we can be each week. It’s been a lot of fun watching this team have the season it’s had.”
Seminole County head coach Alan Ingram on being the No. 1 public school seed: “They haven’t been 10-0 around here for a while. That’s a great accomplishment by this team when you consider all the competition and parity, and this team has done a great job of handling all of that. They don’t worry about [individual] stats, and that’s rare these days. They just worry about the opponent that is in front of them each week. They have a saying that goes ‘respect all but fear none,’ and that’s the way they have approached every one of our opponents.”
Aquinas head coach James Leonard on being looked upon as the team most likely capable of knocking off ELCA: “We’re a lot more balanced than we were last season with [UGA freshman standout] Brendan [Douglas]. [Junior running back] Ruben Garnett was pretty good last year but he was overshadowed by Brendan. He’s showing what he can do this season, and our sophomore quarterback [Liam Welch] has really played well. And we had seven offensive linemen returning, so we thought we would be pretty good.
“I think we play in the SEC of Class A in a region that is down a little bit this season but has teams like Lincoln County, First Presbyterian, Wilkinson County always has great athletes and Warren County. So we feel like when we play like we’re capable of playing we are just as good as anyone that’s out there.
No. 1 Seminole County (Region 1 champion) vs No. 16 Wilkinson County
No. 8 Commerce vs. No. 9 Charlton County
No. 5 Johnson County vs. No. 12 Emanuel County Institute
No. 13 Trion at No. 4 Irwin County
No. 3 Clinch County (Region 2 champion) vs. No. 14 Claxton
No. 6 Hawkinsville vs. No. 11 Mitchell County
No. 7 Lincoln County vs. No. 10 Dooly County
No. 15 Turner County at No. 2 Marion County (Region 4 champion)
No. 1 Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy (Region 5 champion) vs. No. 16 Athens Christian
No. 8 Darlington vs. No. 9 Christian Heritage
No. 5 Prince Avenue (Region 8 champion) vs. No. 12 Brookstone
No. 13 First Presbyterian at No. 4 Calvary Day (Region 3 champion)
No. 3 Aquinas (Region 7 champion) vs. No. 14 Savannah Christian
No. 6 Mount Paran Christian vs. No. 11 Our Lady of Mercy
No. 7 Landmark Christian vs. No. 10 Holy Innocents’
No. 15 St. Anne Pacelli at No. 2 Mount Pisgah Christian (Region 6 champion)