As we head into the final week of the regular season, we’ll hear from two coaches with aspirations for big-time runs in this year’s post season – Prince Avenue Christian’s Greg Vandagriff and Twiggs County’s Ashley Harden. Then we’ll take a look at the updated Georgia High School Association/MaxPreps Class A Power Ratings, where Eagle’s Landing Christian has supplanted PAC as No. 1 on the private side, while Mt. Zion-Carroll continues to lead the public list.
Greg Vandagriff, Prince Avenue Christian
Conventional wisdom suggests that Prince Avenue Christian should be closer to 0-9 than 9-0. The Wolverines lost head coach Jeff Herron, the legendary program-builder who left to jump back into the ranks of the highest classification schools. His replacement, Greg Vandagriff, hadn’t been a head coach for more than a decade. Then he and his staff changed both the offensive and defensive schemes of the team.
But none of that has mattered. PAC is rolling, undefeated heading into Friday’s showdown with one-loss Athens Academy for the Region 8 title. The Wolverines are led by dominant DT Dalton Owens (6-3, 295), ATH Noah Campbell and TE/DE Jared Pringle.
Recently, the former long-time defensive coordinator for Woodward Academy shared some thoughts on his inaugural season in Bogart.
Why the decision to go to PAC?
“It was an opportunity to be the head guy again. Also, with three young kids – a daughter in fifth grade, a daughter in seventh grade and a son in eighth grade – it was an opportunity to move away from the big city into a smaller setting. Prince Avenue is in a place where there is still enough of the city life, but you get the small town feel. It’s the best of both worlds. At Woodward, I didn’t get to see my kids as much as I would have liked. Now, at 2:45 [p.m.] I can go pitch batting practice to my fifth grade daughter in the cage before she goes to practice or to games. That’s just great. At the end of the day, your family is the most important thing in your life.”
You and your staff made a big change to the offensive and defensive systems. Why?
“It’s like night and day from what coach Herron ran. We play an even [four-man] front and we run a spread instead of the wing-T. The whole staff is different, and we didn’t have spring football because we came on board so late. You’d think we would be 2-5 or something. It’s just a testimony to God’s grace, good coaching and good kids. Coach Herron established a work ethic and did some great things here. But it wasn’t like the program was in the dumps before he got here. This program was already established. They played for a state championship in 2012. My job was to come here and keep it going. For the offense, going forward I think it’s the best thing for our program. My son [Brock] is our eighth-grade quarterback. He’s a 6-2 kid and a passer. He’s our future at the position and schools are going to want to see him throw the football. Our offense is up tempo, like Clemson or Auburn. We feel like we wear people down by playing the way we do. We’re not going to line up and just blow people off the ball, so our style of play is suited to our players, and we’re in good enough condition where we have an advantage in the fourth and we’ve shown that. We’ve won a game in overtime [7-0 over Athens Christian]. We were down 21-20 going into the fourth quarter against George Walton and scored three touchdowns to win that game [39-21], and against Commerce we scored with 10 seconds left to win [21-14]. Our kids are well-conditioned and we try to do some things with our substitutions to keep them fresh. Defensively, I’ve been coaching a four-down front for 23 years. It’s what I know, and the kids have just bought in. I give them a lot of credit.”
When did you and your staff realize this could be a special season?
“We had to open up with Aquinas, and we’re like, my gosh! Why did this have to be our first game. But we just trusted in the pieces we had put in place and the kids responded well. But we’ve always thought the team we were in weeks one, two and three is not the team we’re going to be in weeks eight, nine and 10.”
What are your chances of winning a state title?
“Right now I think we’re all chasing ELCA. But it was good to see Wesleyan play them as well as they did. At the end of the day, I think it’s better when not one team is running roughshod all over everyone. For us, I think we have a very good line of scrimmage on offense and defense, which not a lot of teams have. I like how our offensive line and defensive line stack up. The best thing for us to do is to play one game at a time.”
Ashley Harden, Twiggs County
In the age of wide open spread offenses, Twiggs County is old school. The Cobras run a punishing version of the wing-T, featuring bruising senior RB Ja’mon Height (5-9, 205). Their 3-3-5 defense features physical, aggressive players anchored by senior NT Jeffery Jones (6-0, 300).
Harden and his staff are rebuilding the program in Jeffersonville, which had gone 8-46 in the five years before their arrival. After going 4-7 in Year One, the Cobras are 7-2 headed into Friday’s Region 7 crossover game against Greene County, and are No. 3 in the public school power ratings. Harden attributes the team’s success to the program’s base philosophy: the world owes you nothing, so you need to work hard for what you want.
Your team has developed a physical identity. Was that by design?
“We tell our kids we want to be known for playing physical, hardcore football. We want to come right at you. That does something to you mentally, when a team comes right at you and is having success. It demoralizes you because you can’t do anything about it. Our players take pride in it and it’s an attitude we try to display as coaches. Kids replicate what the leadership does. They will follow what you show them and our kids have done a great job in being physical.”
Why the wing-T?
“It’s what I know, what I’ve always been comfortable running. It’s the offense I played in in high school [Starks, FL], and then when I went to Georgia Southern, right after I graduated I started coaching at a middle school in Statesboro and we ran the wing-T. It’s an offense I believe in because you can run it any year, regardless of the skill set of your players. We can spread you out a little bit but at the end of the day, we’re going to do what we do.”
The offense is built around your fullback, Ja’mon Height. How good is he?
“Ja’mon Height is as good as any back in the state of Georgia. That’s the truth. Nobody, and I mean, nobody in any classification, from A to AAAAAAA wants to tackle this kid for four quarters. One man is never enough to bring him down. Ja’mon is a football player. He is the perfect triple-option fullback. He is the closest thing to Adrian Peterson that I have ever seen.”(Peterson set several school and college records as a running back at Georgia Southern from 1998-2001, and won the Walter Payton Award for the most outstanding player at the NCAA Div. 1AA level. After getting drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft, Peterson went on to play eight seasons with the Chicago Bears.)
Why do you think he is not being recruited as much as he should be?
“He isn’t being recruited like he should because he ran a 4.9 [40-yard dash] at some Nike combine. People look at these combine and camp stats too much. Anybody can look good in shorts and a dri-fit. But can you play football? Are you a football player? That’s the most important thing. But he isn’t the only one. Our nose tackle Jeffrey Jones is being recruited by Western Kentucky, but he is as good as there is in the state. He is a big, exceptional athlete and he can really go. I think we have about eight or nine kids that will end up signing somewhere. They don’t get the exposure because they aren’t on the camp or combine circuit because it’s so expensive. For kids from small cities and communities like this, that’s really hard for them.”
How frustrating is that for coaches at small schools in rural areas?
“It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair. We tell our kids that all the time. No one is going to give you anything in life. No one owes you anything. You have to work hard for what you want. That lesson will help these kids go far in football but more importantly in life, and that’s what we want to build. We want these young men to be successful in life.”
You compete in a sub region made up primarily of private schools. Is that fair?
“To be honest, it’s all football. I was against the public-private split. People say the private schools recruit. Well, we recruit too. We recruit in our hallways and in our communities, getting kids to come out and be in our program. My thing is this: if you build a program that is positive and that makes kids better, they are going to want to be a part of it. The college coaches will find you. And I tell [public school] coaches, these kids are going to have to compete against kids from private schools everywhere in life. Why should football be different? There are other public schools with more resources than us. Now is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t just fold up your tent and run. I’ll never tell our kids they aren’t as good as the kids from any other school, public or private.”
What do think about your chances for a long run in the playoffs?
“Anything is possible. When the playoffs start, everybody is 0-0. Like last year, we had to play Marion County, the No. 1 seed. No one gave us a chance. We lost that game 22-20. At the end of the day, you just want to be in the top 24. You want to be in that number. At that point, it doesn’t matter who you line up against. For us, we want to finish strong so we can get that first round bye, heal up, rest up and get ready to play whoever we face.”
ELCA, Mt. Zion top new power ratings
ELCA is jumped in front of PAC on the private side, while Mt. Zion-Carroll maintained the top position on the public side in the final power rating before the end of the regular season. The ratings will be updated Nov. 8, and schools will be given one day to challenge their rating if they choose to. After all appeals have been heard and ruled upon, the final list will be released Nov. 9, with the top eight teams on each side receiving a bye in the first round, which gets underway Nov. 11-12.
Class A Private
Class A Public