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ELCA has speed, toughness to compete in Class A

Eagle's Landing Christian offensive coordinator Jason Carrera (left) talks to quarterback Aaron Spratlin during the team' scrimmage two weeks ago.

Eagle's Landing Christian offensive coordinator Jason Carrera (left) talks to quarterback Aaron Spratlin during the team' scrimmage two weeks ago.

When she was touring with Ike, Tina Turner once said, “We don’t do anything nice and easy.” The same thing might be said of Eagle’s Landing Christian football.

The Chargers are trying to do things fast and tough. Everywhere you look, it seems, there’s an ode to toughness. Cheerleaders rammed 474 white cups into a chain-link fence surrounding the football field, spelling out a message: “DON’T BE SOFT.”

Inside the weight room, there’s a clock that counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the regular-season kickoff against Briarwood Christian, one of the strongest 5A schools in Alabama. And beneath the red numerals that steadily decrease, there’s this: “Be Physical! Be Nasty! DOMINATE!”

That should give you an idea what kind of expectations the Chargers have for themselves this season, after reaching the Class A quarterfinals last year.

“State — and nothing else,” said defensive lineman Justin Thomason, one of the backbones of the Chargers. “I’m not trying to be cocky, but I think we’re better than we were last year. The D line is bigger and better, players have evolved.”

Head coach Jonathan Gess isn’t willing to specify how many wins or what level his team must reach for it to be a successful season beyond saying, “My goal is always to become the best team we can become. I can’t tell you how many wins because I don’t know what other teams have. But I want us to play to the best of our ability and we achieved that last year.”

Gess is confident in his Chargers, of whom he says, “They’ve worked harder than anybody in the state. I’m proud of them.”

Even with the graduations of Avery Walls, Christian Reeves and Tanner Rogers, there’s still a cupboard full of talent from a team that went 12-1 last season.

Aaron Spratlin returns at quarterback. John Tatum and Keyante Green are backfield talents that have colleges after them. Thomason, linebacker Gus Shockley, safety D.J. Curl and cornerback Sebastian Hicks give ELCA a nucleus on which the team pins its football hopes.

Speed is the name of the game at ELCA. The Chargers’ offense runs at a frenetic pace, like that of Oregon. When Oregon was recruiting Walls, who ended up at Pac-10 rival Cal, the Chargers coaches got a chance to sit down with Oregon coach Chip Kelly to find out how the Ducks were able to conduct offense at breakneck speed.

“Our goal is to score as quickly as possible, as much as possible,” Gess said. “We’re explosive.”

Said offensive coordinator Jason Carrera, “Our philosophy is to be aggressive, keep our foot on the pedal. ... We’re pretty lethal.”

They play fast because they practice fast. In a 30-minute period, they try to run 60 plays — or two a minute. It is not an offense for the faint of heart or those lacking in conditioning.

“We have linemen who come up and ask, ‘How do you play so fast?’ Carrera said.

Because of the “size we have on the defensive line and the speed we have in the secondary,” Thomason doesn’t believe the Chargers will lose a game this season. Given that ELCA opens against Briarwood Christian from Birmingham, Ala., Henry County and Manchester, Carrera is only slighlty more reserved about the possibilities.

“We very well could start 0-3 this year,” he said, “and we could still go to the Dome.”

The Georgia Dome is where the state championships are held. To get there, though, the Chargers have to find a way to get by Lincoln County and Clinch County — the teams that have eliminated them the last three years. Three losses by a total of 22 points.

But steadily, Carrera believes, the Chargers are learning what it takes to be at the Lincoln and Clinch level.

“Lincoln County is used to practicing on Thanksgiving,” Carrera said. “Clinch County is used to practicing on Thanksgiving.”

The Chargers hope to be doing the same.

“We’re getting used to being there,” Carrera said.

Said Gess, “I think we definitely have the potential. It’s tough to be as good as we were last year.”

It all depends, the coach said, on the maturation process of the younger players.

“How long will it take them to learn how to work, how to be focused and how to be disciplined,” Gess said. “Football takes a lot of dedication.”

And championship football takes just a little bit more. But ELCA believes it has what it takes.