Class A Private: Aquinas, Calvary Day make plays in search of first state title

By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC

When the game is on the line, championship teams do what championship teams do: Find a way to make a play. Both Class A private school finalists – Aquinas and Calvary Day did just that in their respective semifinals last Friday.

Aquinas (13-0), the No. 3 seed in the private school power ratings, trailed No. 2 Mt. Pisgah 16-10 with a little over five minutes remaining and needed to drive more than 50 yards in a driving rain storm.

No problem. Aquinas converted two third downs and two fourth downs on the drive, which ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Liam Welch to John Morris with 26 seconds left. Justin Thompson’s PAT propelled the Irish into their first state title game in the Augusta school’s history.

Meanwhile, Calvary Day (11-2), a No. 4 seed, was on the brink of knocking off prohibitive favorite and No. 1 seeded Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy after a 1-yard touchdown run by Robert Heyward on the first possession of overtime put the Cavaliers on top, 35-34, after Dan Hatch’s PAT kick. But ELCA countered with a touchdown and head coach Jonathan Gess decided to go for the win.

No problem. ELCA’s power run off tackle with quarterback Jordan Long was snuffed out almost before it could get started by senior defensive lineman Andre Wilson. And just like that, Calvary Day of Savannah joined Aquinas as a first time state finalist. But while both teams advanced in similarly dramatic fashion, their paths to the Georgia Dome were polar opposites.

Even though Aquinas lost arguably the best player in the history of its program, Brendan Douglas, who spent this season running over Southeastern Conference foes for UGA, Irish head coach James Leonard and his staff thought the team had a chance to be better after last season’s 8-3 finish.

“We just felt like we had a lot of talented kids coming back and we had a chance to be more diverse,” Leonard said. “Brendan Douglas is a special player, but we thought if things worked out and we could stay healthy, we had a chance to be pretty good.”

Things worked out to the tune of an undefeated season in which Aquinas averaged nearly 40 points per game while yielding an average of just 14. The charge was led by Welch, a sophomore, two-way star Ruben Garnett, and Heyward and Wilson, who combined for well over 200 tackles on defense.

“Liam is already a leader. Even though he’s just a sophomore, the team follows him,” Leonard said. “And he’s probably the loudest person in the stadium when the defense is on the field, cheering them on.

“Ruben is a lot more quiet,” Leonard said of Garnett, a junior who has committed early to Duke. “He’s not that vocal leader, but he does a great job of leading by example.”

Things did not begin nearly as smoothly for Calvary Day. The Cavaliers lost their first two games of the season, albeit to two very good opponents – 30-22 to Class A Landmark Christian (8-3) in the season opener, and 40-29 to Class AA Bryan County (8-3).

“We just weren’t playing well at all,” head coach Mark Stroud recalled. “We weren’t playing hard and we weren’t playing together. We had to re-evaluate some things we were doing as coaches, move some guys around, and then we called out our team and they responded.”

That response was a resounding 11-game winning streak during which Calvary Day’s spread attack has averaged over 40 points per game while the defense has given up an average of just 11.

“It’s been a great journey,” Stroud said. “Watching us get better and how we’ve progressed offensively has been a lot of fun.”

5 comments Add your comment

LUVIT

December 11th, 2013
2:28 pm

Dream season for both squads…Only wonder if Aquinas has some adversity early in the game if they can react positively…ELCA sure did so probably…

CSRA706

December 11th, 2013
3:57 pm

Aquinas will be able to handle it quite well they been down early a few times this season and were able to bounce back and you know the rest…..

letdatruthbetold

December 12th, 2013
12:02 pm

Who is this AJC reporter… Read these comments Duke has verbally offered ruben garnett but he has not committed to play anywhere… Again Ruben Garnett has not committed to play at Duke, he is still enjoying the recruiting process… It seems like these stories are just thrown together…

letdatruthbetold

December 12th, 2013
12:21 pm

Playmakers… It is just so disrespectful of the bad research done on Aquinas’s football program by these writers… Garnett is not the leading receiver he is a good slot guy with great hands but #4 Daniel Lindsey is with like 700 yards receiving and them you have #47 John Lambert with like 500 yards receiving… It is a lot more things like Aquinas underated secondary which i pray will show everybody that they are the best in the stat #24 Antonio Clark and #5 Nash Bennet with Garnett and Lindsey… Aquinas has been disrespected the whole season by everybody… They have been picked to lose must of the big games but they always have found away to prove the doubters wrong… i believe in what they are going to do in the DOME tmmrw… And the will bring the respect back to AUGUSTA…SMH!
GO IRISH!

LUVIT

December 12th, 2013
3:03 pm

Aquinas fans et al…You were the 3rd seed in the Class so someone respected your team (even if it was self created by your outstanding record)
For the record @Letdatruthbetold – From Max Preps which I assume your folks update -
Welch passed for 1812 to Garnett 268,Gibbs 220,Lindsey 674,Lambert 352
On the Rushing side- Garnnett 1820, Morris 377, Lindsey 261
Now for the Cavs -
Peterson passed for 2997 to Walker 787,Hughes 607, Kirkland 586, Heyward 586, Richard 413
On the Rushing side – Heyward 1288, Kirkland 606
Good luck tomorrow, ya’ll are certainly passionate about the school its history