Prep Zone

Atlanta high school sports news from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Coaches get candid on the eve of the semifinals

In advance of semifinal weekend, here are some thoughts from four of the coaches who are one game away from playing for a state championship.

(The semifinal matchups on the private side are No. 1 Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy vs. No. 5 Prince Avenue and No. 2 Athens Academy vs. No. 3 Mount Paran Christian, on the public its No. 5 Clinch County vs. No. 8 Mt. Zion-Carroll and No. 2 Irwin County vs. No. 3 Emanuel County Institute.)

Jonathan Gess, Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy

ELCA is the No. 1 seed on the private school side, undefeated (12-0) and winners of 34 in a row. The Chargers will host No. 5 Prince Avenue Christian on Friday.

On how this team stacks up against other great ELCA teams from the past

“This is definitely the deepest and fastest team we’ve had. But the story on this team is not written yet. That 2012 team (13-1, nine all-state players, region and state champs) had some phenomenal players on it and they were dominant. But they finished. Through 12 games, this team is just as dominant, but they have to finish. Win or lose, it’s been a great season. But they have to finish.”

On this year’s seniors

“There were 32 on the ninth grade team and we’ve ended up with 23 now. We saw this group coming and we knew they were a talented group. They’ve been to three state championship games (2-1), and from Day One their focus has been on winning the day and being the best they can be. They work hard every single day. They’ve remained humble and respectful of every opponent. Just a great group of kids.”

On when he knew this could be a special season

“We played Knoxville (Tennessee) Catholic and my headmaster wondered why we were playing them. They were huge, just really big and strong. We looked at them before the game and were like good grief. But our kids didn’t blink. They went out there with no fear. We were so much faster than them. We’ve got eight to 10 kids who probably run (the 40-yard dash in) 4.5 or better. When you’re as big as they were, that kind of speed can be really hard to handle.” (ELCA trailed 10-7 early, but went on to route the Irish 55-10 on Sept. 1. Knoxville Catholic is 11-4 and will play for the Tennessee Division I-Class AAAAA state championship this weekend.)

On what his team needs to improve

“We were disappointed last week in our lack of physicality, especially on the line of scrimmage. Calvary Day’s defensive line is big and strong, and they’re really good and they whipped us a bit. We’re a power running team and I told our offensive line we have to get our physicality back and get back to playing our brand of football.”

On how his team has improved this season

“Our defensive line has gotten better and our receiver corps has gotten better and better. And our quarterback (Brayden Rush) has really improved. He’s going through his check downs and finding the open receivers. He’s thrown 20 touchdowns and no interceptions, and has done a really good job of leading the team.”

Greg Vandagriff, Prince Avenue Christian

The Wolverines are 11-1, and the No. 5 seed. When they travel to ELCA on Friday, it will be their third consecutive visit to the semifinals.

On this year’s seniors and their leadership

“We lost 12 seniors from last season, some really good players. Just a great group. We thought at the beginning of this season that we could be a playoff team. As coaches we’re a little shocked that we’ve made this run, but then again our kids expect to win. We’ve established a standard and these kids fight hard to live up to that standard. We have just eight seniors but they’re a great group. Great leaders.”

On the senior difference makers

“Our quarterback, Grant Roland is a three-year starter. He only lost three games in three years as a starter (34-3). He’s just a winner. Daniel Parrish, our center, is a tremendous leader. He’s going to Army. Harrison Jump, our right tackle is going to Georgia Tech. And Tyler Roberts, our outside linebacker, and Sam Wessenger, plays running back and linebacker, are both great players.”

On perhaps the team’s best player, Christian Parrish

“He just checks all the boxes. He’s 5’10”, 185 pounds, runs a 4.5 [in the] 40 and has a 40-inch vertical. He has 2,000 all-purpose yards so far this season, 53 receptions, 1,287 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns. He’s an all-state player.”

On when he know his team had a chance to make a run at a state championship

“It’s been something every week. We started off at Aquinas and they were ranked in the top 10 then, and we beat them, 35-17. Then [five games later] we go to Commerce, which was ranked No. 1 at the time and we’re in a tie game (6-6) at halftime. In the second half we come out and hold them to 20 yards and one first down. Then in Week 10 we play Athens Academy and they flat out whipped us physically (42-14). But we had a [bye week] and got back to basics, and the last two week’s we’ve come out and played as well as we have all year.”

On what it will take to beat ELCA

“My hat is off to those guys and the job they’ve done. Defensively, when a team doesn’t have to adjust to what you’re doing, that lets you know they’re good. On offense, when a team doesn’t run any motion or misdirection, or something to try to fool you, you know they’re just good. That’s ELCA. We’re going to have to keep the ball away from them, and we can’t commit any turnovers. We have to play Prince Avenue football. A couple of our players said ‘coach, Cartersville got beat.’ Maybe this is the year ELCA gets beat, too.”

Buddy Nobles, Irwin County

Irwin County is 11-1 and the No. 2 seed on the public side. Irwin County is the highest seed left in the public playoffs after No. 1 Manchester went down last week. Irwin County is 40-11 and has won three region championships and been to two state finals in Nobles’ four seasons as head coach.

On bringing more validation to the program by winning a state title

“My deal is we’re not going to let not having a ring define our legacy. Don’t get me wrong, we want to win it something awful. But I think we run a classy program where we hold our kids to a higher standard. We want to win a state championship. We have to handle the little things and focus on getting better every day in practice, and keep playing with class, character and toughness. We’ve been beating on the door and beating on the door. Maybe we need to try the handle.”

On this year’s team

“This group has an unbelievable work ethic and they’re a lot of fun to be around. We have 12 seniors, a few juniors, but our sophomores are the biggest group. We have around 20 to 22. We thought next year would be our big year. People say this group of sophomores might be the best class to come through Irwin County. God blessed me to be here at the right time.”

On the Irwin County middle school program

“We just won the middle school championship for the third year in a row. Our middle school coaches do a phenomenal job. Our kids know our base offense and defense when they come here. It’s great when you can kind of see and identify the kids as they are coming up and into your program.”

On defeating defending public school champion Macon County twice this season

“[Macon County head coach Dexter Copeland] set the standard. He and his staff do a tremendous job. Last year they beat us down pretty good (57-15 in Week 2). We played them again this year and we were down 14-0 after the first quarter. But our kids overcame that (Irwin won 38-28) and our confidence started really growing. Our kids feel like they can’t lose to anyone and they walk with a toughness and a confidence that I think we got from Macon County.” (Irwin defeated Macon County 21-15 in last week’s quarterfinals.)

On competing in Region 2, which sent five of its eight teams to the playoffs

“You better be prepared and come ready to play every night, or you’re going to get beat. It’s as simple as that. You’ve got your Clinch, your Charlton, your Turner, and your Telfair, but Atkinson County plays extremely hard. Wilcox is going through a bit of a stretch but they’ve had great success in the past and have talented kids, and even Lanier will fight you. Our league is just so tough.”

Chris Kearson, Emanuel County Institute

The Bulldogs are 11-1 and the No. 3 seed on the public side. This is their third consecutive trip to the semifinals. In seven seasons under Kearson, the Bulldogs are 69-15 with four region titles and one state championship.

On the sustained success of the program at ECI

(Kearson was on the staff of previous head coach Milan Turner, who was 65-12 with three region titles and one state championship in six seasons) “We have a staff of coaches who’ve been together for a long time. We have buy-in from our players. We’re able to see and get our hands on our middle school kids and our middle school coaches have bought in. And we get great support from our community and our administration.”

On this year’s team, led by 10 seniors

“We lost 19 seniors last year and so back in June the expectation from the community, I think, was that if we make the playoffs that would be feather in our cap. Well these seniors took that as a challenge. They have something to prove. This group has gone four years and never lost a game on our home field. They’ve had a tremendous run no matter what happens. Dazhun Steele, Peyton Mercer, Austin Hendrix, and Tiernan Johnson have been big for us. Then Justin Wilkerson, who really stuck with it this year and Clarence Anderson, who is playing for the first time, have been great contributors all season.”

On junior running back Eric Dixon and freshman quarterback Chase Whitehead

“Eric is just a tremendous athlete. He’s a point guard on our basketball team. He has over 1,200 yards rushing. And he’s a legacy kid. His grandfather was a legend around here and his dad was a really good player, too. They’re both at every game. It’s fun to see. Chase has gotten better and better each week. He’s really grown up. We knew he had a chance and through the summer he just competed and battled and had a great attitude, and he won the job.”

On the Bulldogs’ style of play

“We practice with great tempo and we take that into Friday nights. A lot of our games were not in hand until the third and fourth quarter. Our kids talk about taking our opponents out into the deep water and letting them drown. When we played Calvary Day (for the Region 3 championship), they went up 14-0 early. But we felt like if we could hold on and beat on them for three quarters, our conditioning would take over. (ECI won 28-21 in overtime).”

On facing Irwin County

“We look like twins in a lot of ways. What they do well, we do well. Neither one of us has a lot of frills and fancy stuff. They have some really great athletes, and I know they have a great feeder program. Hopefully, we can get the ball to bounce our way a couple of times. It’s going to be a physical, bloody game. Just the way it should be.”

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