Woodward Academy 17, Eagle’s Landing Christian 14

High school football

Credit: For the AJC

caption arrowCaption
High school football

Credit: For the AJC

The pre-season No. 1 team in Class A-Private came up just short

For the second consecutive season opener, the Woodward Academy defense held Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy to 14 points.

Last year, the War Eagles still lost the game, 14-0. Friday night they made one more big play and one less mistake than ELCA, the pre-season No. 1 team in Class A-Private, and came away with a 17-14 win at Colquitt Stadium in College Park.

It was a typical first game for both teams, with both teams hurting themselves with penalties, blown assignments on offense and defense, and several dropped passes. But with both teams’ defenses playing relatively well, bending but not breaking, three big plays – two by Woodward running back Damari Alston – and one big mistake decided the game.

In the first half, a long run by Alston and then a 30-yard touchdown run by the Auburn commit, helped the War Eagles, unranked in Class 5A, take a 10-7 lead into halftime, after a 40-minute weather delay due to lightning in the area. Woodward could have stretched its lead late in the second quarter, but a fumble by Alston thwarted a War Eagle drive deep into Charger territory.

Late in the third quarter, on ELCA’s second drive of the half after forcing two three-and-outs by Woodward, the Chargers hit on their big play of the game. A couple of juniors, quarterback Charlie Gilliam and receiver RJ Johnson, hooked up on a 54-yard touchdown. Gilliam threw a near-perfect ball to Johnson on a go-route down the far sideline, and the speedster did the rest, outrunning the War Eagle secondary to give ELCA a 14-10 lead with just under two minutes left in the period.

In the fourth quarter, bolstered by the long touchdown, ELCA’s defense held Woodward and Alston to three-and-outs on the War Eagles’ two possessions. But the Chargers’ offense failed to capitalize on their ensuing possessions. A sack on third-and-12 halted one drive and a dropped pass on third down ended the next.

On Woodward’s third try on offense midway through the period, Alston and his mates broke through. Junior quarterback Jalen Woods found Alston down the near sideline on a wheel route for a 33-yard gain down to the Chargers’ 5-yard line. On the next play, Alston powered across the goal line, carrying ELCA defenders with him, and the War Eagles took a 17-14 lead with just 4:34 left to play in regulation.

The touchdown run was typical of what Alston did all night, picking up chunks of tough yards against ELCA’s physical, swarming defense.

“That’s a big team over there, and they’re hard to move,” Woodward head coach John Hunt said of ELCA. “I have to give a lot of credit to Damari Alston. He probably had three-quarters of his yards after contact. He’s a phenomenal player and an even better young man. He carried us tonight and we needed it.”

ELCA’s next drive ended with an interception by senior defensive back/receiver Christian Harrison. But the Charger defense held firm again and gave its offense one last crack at tying the game with a field goal or grabbing the lead with a touchdown.

And it looked like ELCA was about to do just that when on fourth-and-one from the War Eagle 39-yard line, Gilliam took the shotgun snap, faked a run into the middle of the line, and then threw a strike to a Charger receiver who had snuck behind the Woodward linebackers and was wide open down the seam. But he dropped the pass.

With just over a minute left and no timeouts for ELCA, the game was essentially over.

Charger head coach Johnathan Gess was both complementary of Woodward and Alston, and philosophical after the game.

“Woodward is really good. I think they will end up being one of the top teams in Class 5A, and [Alston] is a great player. Our guys were there to make the tackle, but we were bouncing off of him like a pinball,” Gess said. “We have a good team, but we’re still playing a lot of sophomores and juniors. This is just like life. You’ll have a lot of ups and downs in life, but the successful people stay on a level, steady plane. That’s what we have to do.”

While happy with his 98th career win at Woodward, Hunt said he knows his team has a lot to work on.

“I think Sunday when they come in and watch the film, they’ll say wow, how much better could we have done if we would have executed better,” Hunt said. “We have so much to learn and improve upon.”