By James Butler
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — The two current giants in Henry County football will meet Friday night as Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy travels to Stockbridge.
ELCA, the only Henry County football team to win a state championship, lost in the state title game a season ago — despite starting the season with an 0-6 record — while Stockbridge lost in the state semifinals. The Chargers and Tigers met on the football field for the first time a year ago with Stockbridge getting a 33-3 victory. ELCA head coach Jonathan Gess and Stockbridge head coach Kevin Whitley both say they share a desire for their programs to compete with the best in the county.
“We like to try and play whoever we feel like is the best team in the county,” Gess said. “About five, six, seven years ago we thought it was Henry County, and then it was Dutchtown. When coach Whitley got [to Stockbridge] he turned [them] around.”
Whitley says he tries to get his kids to understand that county supremacy should come before state supremacy.
“The ultimate goal is always to win the state championship,” Whitley said. “One thing we were saying is it is hard to be a state champion if you’re not even the best team in your county.”
Stockbridge — ranked No. 5 in Class AAAAA by the Georgia Sportswriters Association Poll, No. 3 by the AJC and No. 1 by MaxPreps — defeated Alabama power Central of Phenix City 13-7 last week.
“Central is ranked No. 2 in 7A in Alabama,” Whitley said. “That’s the biggest classification there. […] They have a lot of talent. They were well-coached and our kids fought hard.”
Likewise ELCA, the No. 1-ranked team in Class A, defeated a highly respected out-of-state opponent as they overwhelmed Florida small-school royalty North Florida Christian 35-0.
“To get a victory over them was really good,” Gess said. “They had some really high-profile players. It was a step in the right direction.”
Still, Gess says this particular Charger team has a lot to prove.
“We don’t know much about our team because we’re really young,” he said. “At a lot of positions a lot of sophomores are playing. [We] even have some freshman playing.”
ELCA does return quarterback Donald Hammond III, who has garnered several Division I offers during the offseason, and running backs Trevor Gear and Josh Mays.
“Obviously when your quarterback’s returning things are good offensively,” Gess said. “Last year Gear and Mays were a sophomore and a freshman. Now, they are a junior and a sophomore. We’re really excited about them and what they bring to the table.”
Also, Gess said slot receivers Cam Merritt and Josh Holt are doing a phenomenal job.
Whitley also knows what it’s likes to have a returning starter under center as this is Malachi Brown’s fourth-year starting at quarterback for the Tigers.
“It’s good to have a senior quarterback,” Whitley said. “He knows how we want things done and he knows why we want things done. He’s able to get us in the right play and that really helps us.”
However, unlike ELCA, Stockbridge is replacing a major weapon in the backfield this season.
“We did lose a good running back in Artemus Mitchell, but we feel like Jalen Holston is just as good and we got Jamari Clark (starter at slotback last year) back,” Whitley said. “We feel good about our running backs.”
Despite last year’s loss to Stockbridge, Gess liked how his team played. He’s just thinks their offense must fare better against the Tigers’ traditionally stingy defense.
“If we’re going to compete with them we got to be able to get first downs, something we couldn’t get last year,” Gess said. “We’re not worried about winning or losing the football game, but can we be successful within the game and compete with them.”
Meanwhile Stockbridge is looking to keep its intensity up.
“Our biggest thing right now is not getting complacent,” Whitley said. “We got to stay hungry and stay in hunt mode.”