By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Congratulations to Aquinas and Marion County for their championship wins, which officially bring our beloved football season to a close.
As such, this is the final Class A football blog of the season. In this edition, we allow the coaches to give their individual takes on the high and low points of their seasons, as well as their main focus this off season. We hope you enjoy this version of Coach Speak, featuring a number of coaches from Class A.
Also, if you’re in need of one last high school football fix, the only high school all-star game in the state played in the Georgia Dome will take place Saturday (Dec. 21). The DL Scott Junior & Senior High School All-Star Games will begin with the North Senior All Stars vs. the Central/South Senior All Stars at 1:30 p.m. The North team is made up of players from north Georgia counties (Bartow, Catoosa, Chattooga, Cherokee, Dade, Dawson, Fannin, Floyd, Gilmer, Gordon, Murray, Pickens, Walker and Whitfield) while the Central/South squad includes players from Carroll, Coweta, Douglas, Fayette, south Fulton and Troup Counties.
Next, many of the state’s top juniors from metro Atlanta will face their counterparts from the Augusta area in the Junior All-Star Game at 4 p.m. The event will be capped off by the East Senior All Stars vs. the West Senior All Stars at 7:45 p.m. The East team features players from DeKalb, Gwinnett, Henry, Newton, and Rockdale Counties, while the West includes those from Fulton, Clayton and Cobb Counties, as well as the city of Atlanta. The event will launch with six youth games featuring some of the state’s top youth football organizations. The youth games begin at 8 a.m. Tickets are $22.50 and include admission to all games on the schedule. For more information, call 770-403-9742 or 423-421-2595.
Next week, we will transition to basketball full time, but look for spring football previews in a few months. Thanks for your time, attention and comments this fall!
Aquinas’ James Leonard (Prior to the state championship game)
The Irish finished 14-0 and won the private school championship.
High: “Our win last week [over Mt. Pisgah, 17-16]. We scored the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left after driving down the field in a driving rain storm.”
Low: “We haven’t had many low points this season. We had a couple games where we didn’t play well, like [First Presbyterian Day, regular season finale, a 33-32 win]. I guess we thought we were hot stuff or something, but they gave us all we could handle.”
Offseason: “We graduate three offensive linemen. We’ve got some good guys behind them but we’ve got to get them bigger and stronger.”
Calvary Day’s Mark Stroud (Prior to the state championship game)
The Cavaliers finished 11-3 and lost in the private school final, 27-7, to Aquinas.
High: “Seeing the transformation of this team. Winning is great, but to see a team transform from not being very good to getting it right at the end of the season is great.”
Low: “The way we were not playing up to our potential early in the season. We were just disjointed. It was disappointing.”
Offseason: “We need to keep working to get stronger. We’re going to evaluate our strength program to make sure we’re doing everything we need to do to keep getting better.”
Charlton County’s Rich McWhorter
Charlton County finished 9-5 and lost in the public school final, 12-3, to Marion County.
High: “The playoff run we made. A lot of teams started the playoffs but only two made it as far as we did.”
Low: “The two big losses we had to [AAAAA] Ware County (49-0, Sept. 6) and to Clinch County (34-7, Oct. 25), where we just didn’t compete. It made us question if we really were who we thought we were.”
Offseason: “We’re going to start team-building early, using our other sports. We’re going to really study our personnel that are returning to make sure we know what they do well and then formulate our offseason and spring to maximizing that. We’re going to make sure our basic offense, defense and special teams philosophy is shaped to our personnel. This was the best group of seniors, all 13 of them, in terms of leadership, that we’ve ever had. We’ve got some big holes to fill but we have a handful of talented players coming back.”
Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy’s Jonathan Gess
The Chargers finished 11-1 and lost to Calvary Day (35-34, OT) in the private school semifinals.
High: “Winning the [Region 5] championship again after all the players we lost last season, and how we played without [injured senior quarterback] Dalton [Etheridge]. The team really stepped up without, to me, the best player in all of Class A.”
Low: “Seeing Dalton get hurt. He’s such a great competitor and he and his family have done so much for ELCA football. He’s just a winner and I’m very proud of how he responded, but still disappointed for him.”
Offseason: “We started [last week]. Our kids love the offseason just as much as the season, I think. As a coach, I love [offseason], too. I love seeing the kids get bigger, stronger and better. Our goal is to continue to maximize the talent of every kid in our program, get them stronger mentally and physically. As coaches, we have to keep getting better as a staff X’s and O’s wise.”
On why he didn’t call timeout to try to get the ball back with the score tied in the closing minute of the semifinal against Calvary Day: “I just thought it would have been unfair to [backup quarterback] Jordan [Long]. He hadn’t been prepared for that. We hadn’t given him a lot of reps in practice in that situation. It would have been different if we had prepared him, then I think he would have been fully capable of going out and executing. In 2011 in the same situation against Landmark we worked to get the ball back and threw an interception. Then Landmark ended up scoring and winning the game.”
On why he went for two and the win in overtime: “People can second guess me on that all day if they want. It’s a play we run all the time and I like to call it “unstoppable,” because we’ve got two of my best blockers on the field – [senior linebacker/fullback Josh Shockley and senior lineman Andrew Williams]. We had scored earlier in the game using the same play. The kid [Calvary Day senior defensive lineman Andre Wilson] just made a heck of a play. Give him credit.”
Emanuel County Institute’s Christopher Kearson
The Bulldogs finished 6-5 and lost to Johnson County (29-20) in the first round of the public school playoffs.
High: “”I can’t really say we had that signature win to get us going this season, this Sr. group has alot of feathers in their cap and I’ve really enjoyed watching them mature and grow throughtout the course of their careers.”
Low: “”Two things come to mind, first would be the ACL injuries we had. All teams have to deal with it so I’m singing to the choir but it definitely made our road more difficult. Second thing was our poor overall play as a defensive unit. I’ll blame the DC (me of course).”
Offseason: “”Our main focus this offseason will be to develop our young skill players and vastly improve our overall team speed. You’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad as you think you are!”
Holy Innocents’ Ryan Livezey
The Bears finished 7-5 and lost to Mt. Pisgah Christian (15-7) in the private school quarterfinals.
High: “Upsetting Landmark in game 10 (29-28). I still believe that was one of the most exciting high school games I’ve ever watched.”
Low: “Our loss to Our Lady of Mercy. We were totally out of sync on offense. That was probably one of our worst performances in recent memory. The loss dropped us to 3-4 and potentially knocked us out if the playoffs.”
Offseason: “We will have to replace our offensive backfield. We’ve got talented kids but not lots of experience. I couldn’t be more proud of our players this season. They pulled together when they had to and fought back to take us to the final 8. They never quit.”
Hawkinsville’s David Daniell
The Red Devils finished 9-4 and lost to Marion County (40-7) in the public school semifinals.
High: “The victory over previously undefeated Marion County (14-10, Nov. 1). That win guaranteed us a playoff spot and put us in position to have a chance to host a playoff game.”
Low: “The back-to-back region losses early in the season to Brookstone and Dooly. In both games, we had a chance to win but offensive and defensive miscues kept us from achieving that goal.”
Offseason: “We have to get stronger and faster. That will be our focus right now. As the season rolls around we have to find some running backs. We have some young guys that have the ability but they have never been in the fire on Friday night. We lost our whole backfield with the exception of our quarterback. We also must replace a three year starter on the offensive line. I think the season exceed the expectations of many people with the exception of the guys inside the locker room. We set goals at the beginning of the season with the ultimate goal being to win a state championship. We had the opportunity to get there but fell a little short.”
Irwin County’s Jon Lindsey
Irwin County finished 10-2-1 and lost to Charlton County (34-33) in the public school semifinals.
High: “Getting our 10th win of the year. First 10 win season in 15 years.”
Low: “Losing a fourth quarter lead to Clinch County (30-24, Oct. 11).”
Offseason: “Our main focus this off season will be getting bigger, stronger & faster. Our strength and conditioning program is the backbone of our football program. Our kids bought into our program three years ago and this year we reaped the benefits of the buy-in. We broke a lot of losing streaks and raised the expectation level of Irwin County football.”
Johnson County’s Don Norton
The Trojans finished 10-2 and lost to Irwin County (56-26) in the public school quarterfinals.
High: Winning 10 games and watching all 14 seniors choose to all go out as captains each week.”
Low: “Losing to Calvary Day (40-14, Region 3 title game, Nov. 8 ) and Irwin County, and having to tell a few players the severity of their knee injury this season.”
Offseason: “Getting stronger, faster and building team chemistry. Senior leadership and team chemistry enabled us to succeed and have a great season.”
Landmark Christian School’s Wayne Brantley
The War Eagles finished 8-3 and lost to Holy Innocents (27-17) in the first round of the private school playoffs.
High: “To me there were a lot of high points, but I think the most important thing to me occurred continuously throughout the year. The character, integrity, class, and unselfishness that our players displayed all season long meant the most to me. I am blessed to have a great group of young men that came to work every-day and improved throughout the entire season.”
Low: “You never want the season to end so the low point would have been losing to HIES in the playoffs, but I say it was a low point not because we lost, but because I wouldn’t get to be with those boys every day at practice anymore this year.”
Offseason: “Strength training. Our theme for the season was ‘carry the water’, during camp we studied the story of Jesus turning water into wine. He told the servants to fill the jugs full of water and to carry them to the host of the wedding; they were obedient and the water changed to wine. But, not immediately, they had to carry the water in big heavy jugs a long way. They key is to be obedient to doing your job and to never stop. The water will turn to wine, a man will reap what he sows, at the proper time if we do not give up.”
Lincoln County’s Larry Campbell
The Red Devils finished 7-4 and lost (37-13) to Dooly County in the first round of the public school playoffs.
High: “I don’t know if we had many high points. Going 7-4 is acceptable in a lot of places. Lincoln County is not one of those places. Our numbers are down but that happens. This is not going to be an easy fix. Our diehard Red Devil fans realize that and will be with us. There are some who think we can just show up and win, but there isn’t a great program in the state that hasn’t had to regroup at some point. That’s where we are now. You can either stay and fight through it, or leave it to someone else to rebuild.”
Low: “Last year’s loss in the playoffs was really hard to swallow because I thought we had a team that was capable of making it to the Dome. But this year’s team wasn’t on that level. We just didn’t have the numbers. Still it was disappointing.”
Offseason: “We have to get back to the fundamentals of simple blocking and tackling. We did a poor job of both this season. We’ve got to start with our ninth graders all the way up. And we have to find some great athletes that are ready to step up.”
Mt. Paran’s Mitch Jordan
The Eagles finished 9-3 and lost (35-32) to Aquinas in the private school quarterfinals.
High: “Hosting and winning our first playoff game. It was a great reward for our players, fans and community.”
Low: “We lost a close game 28 to 24 in the final minute to Mount Pisgah Christian (Oct. 25). The Mount Pisgah players stepped up and made key plays at the end of the game. Hats off to Mount Pisgah for a great season.”
Offseason: “Analyze our program and make minor adjustments if deemed necessary. Continue to work hard and avoid trying to make too many changes.”
Mt. Pisgah’s Mike Forester
The Patriots finished 12-1 and lost (17-16) to Aquinas in the private school semifinals.
High: “Finishing undefeated in the regular season for the first time is something that can never be taken away from these kids. It was so big for our school and our program. This was just a tremendous group of kids who worked so hard, every single one of them. The drive and determination they showed was unreal.”
Low: “The loss in the semifinals. It’s one thing when you know you can say one team was just better than the other. But when you match up well and you know the game can go either way, [losing] is tough to take.”
Offseason: “We have to evaluate how we can get better in our offseason program. Make sure we’re doing everything we should be doing to get better. The difficult think in Class A is you have so many kids going both ways that you really have to be organized with your practices so that you are prioritizing properly what you need to work on the most.”
Mt. Zion-Carrollton’s Matt Burleson
The Eagles finished 4-5 and missed the state playoffs.
High: “Beating our rival (Gordon Lee, 16-12, Nov. 1) and winning homecoming for the second year in a row, something that hasn’t been done in a long time.”
Low: “The obscene amount of injuries that occurred in the middle of the season. We had nine starters out at one point.”
Offseason: “[Building] mental and physical toughness.”
Our Lady of Mercy’s Mike Earwood
The Bobcats finished 5-6 and lost (31-24) to Mt. Paran in the first round of the private school playoffs.
High: “The win over Pace Academy (22-14, Sept. 27) showed a lot of character. We could have shut down (after starting 0-3) but that was the turning point in our season. We started believing that if we just cut down on our mistakes we could start winning.”
Low: “Losing in the first round to Mt. Paran was really hard to take. We spotted them seven points right out of the blocks. We fought hard to get back in it and went right down to the end but it wasn’t enough. It was hurtful to know we could have won that game.”
Offseason: “We have got to find some receivers. We’re losing three guys — Christian Coleman, Delfayeo Matthews and Albert Wilson — who were very productive and made a lot of big plays for us. But we have some talented guys we’re looking at to step in for them, (juniors) Jervon Kyles and Grant Walker. We have (quarterback/kicker) Jameson Vest, and a really good linebacker group with (juniors) JordanThomas and Alex Horlak coming back. And we have a talented sophomore class that if they keep working and developing can be pretty good.”
Pace Academy’s Chris Slade
The Knights finished 5-5 and missed the state playoffs.
High: “Beating Athens Academy (42-9, Sept. 6), which was ranked fifth or sixth at the time. They had beaten us pretty badly (42-7) last year.”
Low: “Losing three games in a row to Landmark Christian (17-14), Holy Innocents (17-14), and ELCA (40-2) late in the season, which is what prevented us from making the playoffs. “
Offseason: “We’re moving up to [Class] AA. We’ve got to get better up front, bigger and stronger. Overall I was very pleased with the way our guys played hard. We improved by leaps and bounds, and it shows in our record but also in how we played. The kids have bought in to what we’re doing, and we’re excited about the future. I think playing in Region 5 has prepared us for moving up to AA.”