The fourth consecutive state championship did not come easily for Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy.
The Chargers found themselves in a strange place at halftime of their title game on Wednesday. They were behind.
It didn’t last long. Two quick scores to open the second half was all ELCA needed to flip the momentum and the Chargers wound up rolling to a 44-17 win over Athens Academy in the Class A Private final at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Chargers became only the third team to win four straight championships, joining Buford (2007-2010) and West Rome (1982-85).
“This one is a little sweeter,” admitted ELCA coach Jonathan Gess. “Last year we were supposed to win. This year everyone thought we were supposed to win, but we replaced 13 starters off that team and we only had 13 seniors. This one is sweet for what we were able to do, buckle down and work hard. We really had to fight this year to win.”
This year’s championship was a rematch from last year’s final, which ELCA won 41-3. Only this time it was Athens Academy that jumped out to a 10-0 lead thanks to a 40-yard field goal from James Williams and a 54-yard run from Len Whitehead.
Gess didn’t say much at halftime. “I prayed a little,” he said. “And I was just hoping we could get a spark, something would happen. We talked to the team about how we’ve got big-time players and big-time players have to make big-time plays. You saw that in the second half.”
ELCA took the second-half kick and drove 64 yards in eight plays, with Justin Menard scoring on a 23-yard pass from Brayden Rush.
The Chargers then fueled the momentum when Jack Buckley intercepted a Palmer Bush pass and returned it 27 yards to the Athens 14. Two plays later Rush flipped a pass to Justin Robinson in the left flat and he beat two players to the corner for a 14-yard touchdown.
“Going into halftime, we talked about how it was only a touchdown and a field goal,” Menard said. “We were going to go in and turn up the game. So we went in and scored two touchdowns.”
After forcing Athens Academy to go three-and-out, the Chargers scored again. Rush threw to Menard, who went 50 yards for a touchdown and a 20-10 lead. In less than seven minutes, ELCA had gone from 10 points behind to 10 point in front.
Athens Academy gamely tried to stay in the fight. The Spartans drove 55 yards and scored on Whitehead’s 7-yard run to cut the lead to 20-17.
But ELCA scored again on a 24-yard Keaton Mitchell run. And again on a 25-yard Austin Reed field goal. And again on Mitchell’s 58-yard run. And again on a 35-yard Josh Rogers run.
Rush, one of the ELCA players who has experienced all four championships, said the preparation began a long time ago.
“Every year you start in January and everybody has the same record,” Rush said. “We worked so hard. And it doesn’t matter what class … I think we have the best coach in the state. He makes us better.”
Eagle’s Landing Christian (13-1) finished with 490 yards of total offense, 256 of it coming in the second half. Mitchell rushed 17 times for 173 yards and two touchdowns and Rogers ran for 77 and one touchdown. Rush completed 11 of 22 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns. Robinson had five receptions for 90 yards and one touchdown.
Athens Academy (13-1) was led by Whitehead, who ran 13 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Bush completed 12 of 23 passes for 88 yards, but threw three interceptions and was sacked four times.
The ELCA defense got nine tackles from Kobi Mitchell and eight tackles from Jelan Pearson, who had two tackles for loss and two sacks. Jonathan Youngblood had eight tackles, one interception and one pass breakup. Buckley and Deion Fisher also had interceptions.
The Athens Academy defense was led by William McClanahan with 15 tackles and a forced fumble. Barre McLanahan had six tackles, one for loss, and broke up a pass. Deion Colzie and Len Whitehead also forced fumbles and Kurt Knisely and Payton Bowles recovered fumbles.