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Class AA blog: Checking in with Pace Academy

ajc.com

When the GHSA released its initial classification alignments to go into effect for 2020-21, the Pace Academy Knights were slated to move from Class AAA to A-Private. That didn’t sit well with Knights coach Chris Slade, a former NFL player entering his eighth season at Pace, where he won the program its first state title in 2015. Being the competitor he is, he began lobbying school administrators to seek a different outcome.

“No disrespect to Class A-Private,” Slade said. “We were in there when I first came to Pace. (The Knights competed in Class A from 2008-13, the final season being Slade’s first at the school.) I didn’t want to be there from a competitive standpoint. (Administration) agreed that it would be best for us, institutionally, to play higher. I wanted to stay in AAA, but I was outvoted by the school.”

Instead, the Knights successfully appealed to the GHSA to join AA, putting them in Region 6 along with their crosstown rivals, the Lovett Lions, who — like Pace —  came from 5-AAA, where the two have played since 2016. The Buckhead area schools are just 2.7 miles from each other and have competed in the same region since the Knights joined 6-AA in 2014. In the last three seasons, their games have been decided by an average of 4.66 points.

Though Slade enjoyed the challenge of playing in AAA, the Knights struggled to stay above .500 in four seasons there, never topping six wins and finishing 22-20. In fact, their win over Fitzgerald in the AA state championship is their last postseason victory — they went 0-4 in the AAA playoffs as a No. 4 seed each season.

Now in 6-AA, which lost its top two football programs Hapeville Charter and Douglass to AAA, the Knights are expected to compete with Lovett for the region title. They’re in prime position to win their first playoff game in five years with the return of all starters on offense. That includes senior quarterback Evan Smith-Rooks and running backs Justin Johnson, a senior with mid-major prospects, and Lawrence “Deuce” Jordan, a junior and baseball standout.

Slade is most excited about the return of his offensive line, led by three-year starter Christian Bing, a senior, and junior Hunter Rocker, a converted tight end. Trovon Baugh is a 6-foot-3, 280-pound sophomore whom Slade dubs as the next Andrew Thomas or Jamaree Salyer. Both Thomas and Salyer were AJC Super 11 selections who went on to play at Georgia. Salyer will be a junior for the Bulldogs next season and Thomas is projected as a mid-first rounder in ESPN analyst Mel Kiper's latest mock draft.

“Remember that name,” Slade said of Baugh.

The biggest name on the roster is four-star receiver Jayden Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior who holds nearly every coveted offer in the country including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Of his 20 reported offers, Slade said Thomas has narrowed his list down to 10 or 11.

“He’s handled the recruiting process in stride and he’s been as mature about it as any player I’ve coached at Pace,” Slade said.

On defense, the Knights will return seven starters led by junior defensive tackle Xavier Agostino, who holds an offer from Virginia Tech. Slade describes sophomore Jordan Sloan as a promising linebacker with a bright future and he’ll join two-way starting Johnson and senior Myles Bolton to form the linebacker corps.

If there’s a vulnerability to the team, it’s in the secondary, where they graduated all of their starters led by Mbiti Williams, who signed with Navy.

“That’s our biggest void,” Slade said. “We’ll have Jayden play some in the secondary.”

The X-factor, Slade said, will be the kicking game. Pearson Bates, a senior, has been a reliable placekicker and punter.

“If we stay healthy I feel like we can go pretty far,” Slade said. “We have a ton of experience on offense and we can score points. And we have depth on the defensive line.”

Since the cancellation of all GHSA activities, Slade has been taking a low-key approach with the team. Though the Pace campus is closed, students are still attending school online from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and doing homework afterward. Because of that, Slade has limited team communication to simply staying in touch and having the team’s strength and conditioning coach send out supplemental workout routines.

“I try to be mindful of them being in front of a computer 7-9 hours a day,” Slade said. “The last they they probably want to do is then hop on Zoom and hear my big mouth.”

Slade was also waiting for the school’s admissions process, which concludes this week, to end for any new incoming players to officially join the team. When that’s completed, he’ll ramp up team and staff meetings on Zoom and FaceTime.

“Right now everyone is under the same restrictions,” Slade said. “We’ll do a little at a time, gradually, and we’ll do more once we have access to the facilities.”

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