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.”