By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Class A Private Title Game (Friday, 2:30 p.m.)
Calvary Day (11-2) vs. Aquinas (13-0)
Overview: This is a matchup of two first-time state finalists. Aquinas, located in Augusta, had been a relatively mediocre program for more than 50 years until Matt Lazotte took over in 2009 and led the Irish to a 28-16 record over four seasons. James Leonard, an assistant on Lazotte’s staff, was promoted to head coach this season and at 26-years-old is one of the youngest head coaches in Georgia. Calvary Day’s furthest advancement in the state playoffs was the quarterfinals in 1999. Mark Stroud took over the program at the Savannah school in 2008 after the Cavaliers won just two games the previous two seasons. Since 2010, Calvary Day has gone 38-9 with four consecutive playoff appearances.
Aquinas’ season: The Irish won their first region championship in school history. On the way to the Region 7 title, Aquinas beat Lincoln County (42-14) for the first time since 1972, snapping a streak of 32 consecutive losses to the perennial Class A power.
Calvary Day’s season: After dropping the first two games of the season to two teams (Class A Landmark Christian and Class AA Bryan County) that advanced to the state playoffs, the Cavaliers have won 11 straight by an average margin of nearly 30 points per game. After the first two losses in which Calvary Day’s defense gave up a total of 70 points, the unit surrendered a total of just 47 in the final eight games of the regular season, including three shutouts.
Aquinas’ strength: The Irish feature a balanced attack on offense, averaging 140 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. Defensively, Aquinas is giving up just 14 points per game.
Calvary Day’s strength: The Cavaliers feature one of the most potent offenses in Class A, averaging 230 yards passing and 180 yards rushing per game. On defense, Calvary Day is yielding just 15 points per game.
Aquinas’ top players: Sophomore quarterback Liam Welch has completed 108-of-169 passes for 1,772 yards and 28 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. Junior Ruben Garnett is the team’s leading runner and receiver, and has committed early to Duke. The defense is led by a trio of linebackers – seniors John Morris (109 tackles) and Chris Lambert (118), and junior Griffin Scott (191).
Calvary Day’s top players: Senior quarterback Michael Peterson has completed 70 percent of his passes while throwing for nearly 3,000 yards with 40 touchdowns and just five interceptions. His favorite targets are seniors Jordan Walker (787 yards, 8 touchdowns), Khaliq Hughes (607, 7), Derek Kirkland (586, 9), and Milan Richards (413, 5), who has committed to Clemson and is the nephew of UGA great Herschel Walker. Robert Heyward, one of the state’s top junior running backs, has nearly 1,300 yards rushing and 15 total touchdowns. Heyward leads the charge on defense with 119 tackles, along with junior defensive end Josh Imholz (103 tackles, 7 sacks) and senior defensive tackle Andre Wilson (88 tackles).
On Aquinas: “They are a well-balanced, well-coached team. Their quarterback (Welch) is outstanding and No. 1 (Garnett) is a very talented player. They have a lot of players who go both ways, so fatigue may be a factor, but I don’t see them having that many weaknesses at all.” – Lincoln County head coach Larry Campbell, whose team lost to Aquinas 42-14 on Oct. 11.
On Calvary Day: “They are so fast and athletic on the perimeter that not many teams in Class A, maybe only Our Lady of Mercy, can match up with them on the outside. They don’t play a physical brand of football, but they make it almost impossible to defend them.” – Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy head coach Jonathan Gess, whose team lost to Calvary Day 35-34 in overtime in last week’s semifinals.
AJC pick: Calvary Day 28, Aquinas 24