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ELCA football's reloading project begins with Mt. Paran in Columbus

ELCA coach Jonathan Gess says his fourth-ranked team will get a test today against No. 5 Mount Paran Christian in Columbus. (File Photo)

ELCA coach Jonathan Gess says his fourth-ranked team will get a test today against No. 5 Mount Paran Christian in Columbus. (File Photo)

McDONOUGH — Jonathan Gess isn’t accustomed to being on this side of the state championship conversation in Class A football.

It’s the side where his Eagle’s Landing Christian football team is being considered a hunter rather than the hunted.

“Rebuilding, you know coaches hate to use that word, but we’re a young football team with only 11 seniors,” Gess said.

And it’s a young football team with a gargantuan sized task ahead of it as the fourth-ranked Chargers open the season with six playoff teams from a year ago — four of those squads in higher classifications.

It all begins today with ELCA’s 10 a.m. kickoff in the Battlefield Classic in Columbus against fifth-ranked Mount Paran Christian. The seventh-year school out of Kennesaw is being tabbed by many as one of the favorites to usurp ELCA’s perch atop the Class A football world — at least for this season.

And it’s no wonder, being that the Eagles return every starter from a team that went 9-3, losing by just a field goal to Aquinas in the quarterfinals of the Class A playoffs last season.

Pretty daunting stuff for a team that’s starting a fairly new quarterback and four freshmen, with a fifth that will see substantial playing. Josh Mays (running back), Tyrese Black (defensive end), Caleb Dallas (linebacker) and Khaleb Hood (cornerback) are the freshman four Gess spoke of, while wide receiver Trey Douglas will rotate in when ELCA runs its spread sets.

“There’s definitely going to be a learning curve,” Gess said. “Those freshmen that are starting now, I mean they’re good players. They’re not your typical JV football player. They’re good players with bright futures. But we’re going to have to learn how to compete at the varsity level, work as one unit, don’t take plays off, focus every play and just get some gains under our belt. We just want to get better and better, and improve and improve.”

That’s why Gess calls this game the ultimate “measuring stick” for his players — even more so than future games against the likes of Stockbridge, Whitewater and Woodward Academy.

“Mount Paran is going to be a great challenge for us,” he said. “They’re kind of a team that folks are talking about having a real shot to content for a state championship. They’ve got two extremely talented tailbacks and two defensive linemen who are extremely good. They’re the size of the two Stockbridge boys (Titus Davis and Tyree Turner). In reality, it’s a great challenge for our boys to see where we stack up this year. Are we going to be in the hunt? Can we be in the hunt? If we can play with those guys or even beat those guys, it shows we’ve got a chance to compete for a state title.

“This game isn’t like those other games against the bigger schools, because those other teams are nothing like what we’ll see.”

One thing Gess said he’s also anxious to see is how senior Jordan Scott’s addition will affect his squad. Scott is a fairly highly touted transfer from Salem High in Conyers, and will be expected to contribute both at receiver and in the quarterback run game.

“I’m very comfortable and confident with what our starter Jordan Long will be at quarterback,” Gess said. “But in our offense, I do run my quarterback a lot, so instead of Jordan (Long) taking all those blows, it’ll be nice to have two different quarterbacks to run the ball. What we can do with Jordan Scott is going to grow week by week. We’re excited about the dimension he’s going to bring to our team.”

Gess said it’s not coachspeak to say that wins and losses won’t be the telltale marker of success for this year’s team. With the combination of so many new faces and a tough schedule, Gess is more concerned with honing the intangible qualities of his team first.

“The key thing for us is going to be developing team chemistry,” he said. “It’s going to be us learning how to play together, learning what we’re good at. The past few years, we had returning classes that were strong, so we started out the year strong. I don’t know if that’s the case this year. But it’s not about the wins and losses.

“It’s about getting better each week. And that’s our goal each week, just keep getting better.”

*Note: It was mistakenly reported in Friday’s prediction story that the ELCA-Mount Paran game would be played at ELCA’s Commitment Field.