By Brian Paglia
NORCROSS--Eagle's Landing Christian coach Jonthan Gess was well into his post-game speech when he was interrupted. Behind him came athletic director and assistant coach Scott Queen squeezing through the throng of ELCA fans that had emptied onto the field at Henderson Stadium.
Gess was waxing poetic in football coach vernacular, trying to put into words the magnitude of ELCA's 35-28 win at Wesleyan on Friday. But when Queen handed Gess a gold, gleaming Region 5-A championship trophy, there were no words. Only cheers.
Among the myriad of milestones -- a win over the No. 2-ranked team in Class A, the program's first undefeated regular season and first region championship in its Georgia High School Association history -- perhaps the most significant accomplishment was in fulfilling the Chargers' goal to deliver a statement.
"I'm really proud of this team," Gess said. "Eagle's Landing Christian has always been on the verge. It can't be any better than beating the No. 2 team in the state."
There seemed little separating these teams physically entering Friday, but Wesleyan (9-1, 6-1) held the mental advantage. The Wolves had experience, winning two straight region championships and a state title in 2008.
But the game was tied 14-14 at halftime. ELCA quarterback Aaron Spratlin (11-for-18 passing, 160 yards, two touchdowns) had thrown touchdown passes to Christian Reeves and Travis Mamon. Wesleyan running back Kyle Karemplis (20 carries, 186 yards, three touchdowns) had already rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns, including a 69-yard score on the third play of the game.
ELCA (10-0, 7-0) went into halftime determined to play better -- Wesleyan out-gained ELCA, 161-87, in the first quarter alone -- but also encouraged. It had been tied 14-14 at halftime before against Class AA Manchester.
Psychological advantage, ELCA.
"We had been through the same thing before against Manchester," Chargers running back Keyante Green said. "We just had to keep working. We spent all summer running and running. We weren't going to run for nothing, so we just kept working."
Indeed, ELCA showed marked improvement on offense immediately. The Chargers got the ball to start the second half and Green (16 carries, 150 yards, two touchdowns) ran for 17 yards. Avery Walls went in motion to the right on the next play, took the handoff and cut up the sideline for a 43-yard touchdown.
"Avery did a tremendous job," Gess said.
Two possessions later, Green finished an eight-play, 78-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown run to put the Chargers up 27-14 with 10:56 left in the game.
And yet Wesleyan responded.
It responded after Green's first touchdown with a methodical 10-play, 72-yard drive finished by Karempelis with a run of 14 yards to cut the lead to 27-21.
It responded after Green's second touchdown -- when he burst down the sideline 77 yards, barely beating the outstretched hands of Karemplis chasing him -- with a swift nine-play, 63-yard scoring drive with 1:30 left in the game.
Again, ELCA's own experiences came in handy.
"We'd been through this before," said Reeves, who finished with seven catches for 131 yards. "We had a heartbreaker against Lincoln County last year where we had a two-touchdown lead late and ended up losing. We knew it wasn't over. We were focuesd, zeroed in. Wesleyan's a well-coached team, a disciplined team. It's never over with a team like that."
But when the Chargers recovered the enusing onside kick and ran out the final minute, it was over.