For the first time since 2000, and the first time ever as a member of the Georgia High School Association, Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy is 0-4 after losing last week to Mt. Pisgah Christian (2-1), 28-21.
This is very unfamiliar territory for ELCA Nation, the 2012 private school champions who compiled a record of 57-8 over the previous five seasons. The last time the Chargers lost four games was 2007, the first year of head coach Jonathan Gess. Prior to this season, the last time ELCA lost more than three consecutive games was 2000, when they were competing in the Georgia Independent Schools Association, and eventually finished 2-10.
One coach who knows what Gess and the Chargers are experiencing is Charlton County head coach Rich McWhorter. In the 30 years of prior to his arrival in 1990 in Folkston, Charlton County had won nine games just once. McWhorter and his staff led the program to at least nine wins every year for 22 of the next 23 seasons (Charlton County won eight games in 1991) – a stretch that included all four of the programs state championships and 15 of its 21 region titles – until 2012. That season, Charlton County finished 5-6 and lost its last three game, including the first round of the state playoffs, by an average score of 38-22.
“[In 2012] we knew that in past seasons we had struggled a little in the regular season but pulled things together and still made good runs in the playoffs. We had even won state championships after struggling during parts of the regular season,” McWhorter said. “But that year we just didn’t have the leadership in the upper classes that is needed to have a successful year.
“And I won’t say it was all those kids’ fault because they had some very talented classes just in front of them with great leaders,” McWhorter said. “They had followed behind those kids since middle school, so they never had to lead. So when those kids left and it was their turn to lead, they had never done it before. So we lacked that strong leadership element, and maybe we didn’t have the level of commitment we needed from some of those kids.”
The silver lining for ELCA is that better days lie ahead, as was the case for Charlton County. The Indians turned things around last season, going 9-5 and advancing to the Class A public school championship game for the first time since 2006.
“A big part of our success last year was our senior leadership,” McWhorter said. “Those kids stepped up and led us on the field and in school. I’ve always said that you want your kids’ senior year to be their best year, and that’s exactly what happened.”
This season Charlton County is undefeated and ranked No. 5. After flirting with changing their offense to a hybrid wing-T out of the “pistol,” McWhorter and his staff decided to go back to their spread-option based look of the past few seasons. Led by senior quarterback Jimmy Nettles, the Indians have averaged 33 points per game thus far.
“We went back to a scheme that I think best fits our kids’ strengths,” McWhorter said. “Jimmy has done a great job. We’re really pleased with how he’s played.”
But McWhorter said the jury is still out on just how good his team can be this season. The Indians will have to find a way to keep winning in spite of losing two of their best players to season-ending injuries. Junior nose tackle Michael Dasher, a dominant force, suffered torn ligaments in his knee, while senior DB/RB Malik Dawson, the team’s best defensive back, has a broken leg.
“You just wonder how much your team can stand when you lose kids like that,” McWhorter said. “But some kids are going to have to step up. We’re about to get into our region schedule now, and our league is as tough as any there is. We’ve told our kids that all we’ve done so far is guaranteed ourselves three wins this season. It’s all about what we do with these next seven.”
Matt Burleson has Telfair County back on track
Aside from a two-year stretch in 1992-1993, when Telfair County went a combined 21-4 and won both the school’s region titles, the Trojan program has averaged three wins a year since 1967.
Matt Burleson came to McRae in 2012 and led a team that went 4-26 the three previous seasons to a record of 6-4 and a near birth in the public school state playoffs. The Indians road that momentum to a 3-0 start last year, but a four-game losing streak at mid-season led to a 1-6 finish.
Now Telfair County is back in the same position as last year after three games – undefeated. Though injuries played a big role in last season’s slide, Burleson said he and his staff have talked to their players about avoiding a repeat of last season.
“In that fourth game last year we played a non-region game against a very big and physical Southeast Bulloch team from [Class] AAA. They averaged about 260-270 pounds up front and ended up having their best season in about 10 years,” Burleson said of the game his team lost 35-26.
“We kept it close and competed hard, but they really beat us up from a depth standpoint,” he said. “We started our region schedule the next week against Clinch County without five of our starters. Then we lost two more in that game. The next week we played Irwin County and eight of our starters in that game were junior varsity players.”
But Burleson said the improvements in the program and the resulting success has brought more players to the team. Last year’s roster had 39 players, this season there are 51, 21 of which are freshmen.
“When you have some success, kids want to be a part of that so we had more kids come out for football, which adds to our depth,” Burleson said. “We’re real excited about our middle school program. We have 21 freshmen on our roster that came from the middle school, where they’re running a scaled down version of what we’re doing. That’s huge for us because now when they get to high school we can work on fine tuning their technique, while we get them bigger, stronger and faster.”
As the Trojans begin their Region 2 schedule this week at Turner County (2-1), the added depth will help them make a run at the program’s first post season appearance since 2004. Still, Burleson knows nothing is guaranteed.
“We’ve talked about avoiding how we finished last season,” he said. “And we know that injuries can still happen. But we’re not going to use that as an excuse. If injuries happen, they happen. We still have to find a way to get it done.”
No GISA, No Problem: Tattnall still has not lost
While their rivals from the Georgia Independent Schools Association, Mount de Sales and Stratford Academy, have split their first two games in the Georgia High Schools Association, Tattnall Square of Macon is rolling along at 3-0. Last week’s victim was Strong Rock Christian (2-2), beaten 33-0 by the Trojans. Running back J.J. Battle led the way with a 96-yard punt return for a touchdown while Ahmad Barron caught two touchdown passes, all in the second quarter.
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