By Gabriel Stovall
ATLANTA, Ga. — What a difference a year makes.
In a game that tried its best early on to cast Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy into a 2014 deja vu scenario, the Chargers, this time, would not bend as they overcame early gaffs and rode the coattails of senior quarterback D.J. Hammond and junior tailback Trevor Gear to a 35-14 win over top-ranked Aquinas in Saturday’s Class A championship game at the Georgia Dome.
“You know, I don’t even think their heads went there to last year’s game when we got behind,” ELCA coach Jonathan Gess said. “These guys are fighters, man. It’s not like the 2012 team that was just loaded with talent. These boys are grinders. And that’s just how we win. Whatever happens, we just keep moving forward.”
Hammond rushed for 119 yards on 12 caries with two scores — both in the fourth quarter — while Gear picked his way for 109 yards on 28 carries and one touchdown to push back the Fighting Irish in a game that started out almost as disastrous as ELCA’s 49-7 loss to Mount Paran in last year’s title game.
In that game, ELCA committed three turnovers right off the bat to spot Mount Paran a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Saturday, Aquinas did its best Mount Paran impression, starting when Verenzo Holmes took the game’s opening kick back 99 yards for a score.
On ELCA’s ensuing possession, Gear fumbled on the Aquinas 22 yard line to end a promising drive. And what began as misfortune almost turned to disaster when, on the game’s next play, Aquinas quarterback Liam Welch heaved a bomb down the left sideline to a wide open Justin Gibbs.
The Mississippi State commit dropped what would’ve been a sure touchdown. Instead, the Irish ended up punting it away, and ELCA responded by marching 65 yards on 12 plays to tie the game at 7 when Gear plunged in from two yards out at the 4:53 mark in the first quarter.
Despite a couple of decent runs by Aquinas tailback D’Angelo Durham, the Chargers’ defense held serve for the rest of the half and junior Alex Usry fortified the offense by booting a pair of field goals — the second one, a 48 yarder that would’ve been good for about another seven yards, gave ELCA a 13-7 lead at the half.
Aquinas’ defense stymied ELCA on the third quarter’s opening drive, forcing a three-and-out, and giving Welch an opportunity to connect with Gibbs, despite tight coverage, on a pretty six-yard fade pass to the left corner of the end zone. The score put Aquinas on top once again, 14-13, with 7:45 left in the third.
It would also prove to be the only score between either team in the period, although ELCA would start a drive on its own 27 in the third quarter’s waning minutes that would eventually be capped off by Hammond’s 18 yard scamper to the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter to give ELCA a 21-14 lead.
ELCA’s defense stiffened, forcing Aquinas to another three-and-out. Eight plays later Hammond took the zone read keeper and bounced outside to the right sideline for a 32-yard touchdown run that stretched his team’s lead to 28-14 with 7:26 left in the fourth.
Aquinas looked like it would scramble to answer with a score of its own until sophomore Khaleb Hood stepped in front of a Welch pass to the end zone to end the Irish’s drive.
Hood would later cap off the scoring by taking another of Welch’s misfires back for a 100-yard pick six.
Afterward, Hood attributed his disruptiveness in the secondary to being able to discern how Welch was telegraphing his throws.
“You know really, I was just looking at the quarterback’s eyes the whole time,” Hood said. “And he was telling me exactly where he was going to throw it, so when he threw it, I just broke on the ball and caught it both times.”
On the pick six, Hood said it was instinct that took over, resulting in him turning a simple turnover into points for ELCA.
“On the runback, I just made one stick, saw a seam and just started running,” he said.
Running was definitely a part of the Chargers’ game plan all day, as the Region 5-A champs rushed for 313 yards on 57 carries while only throwing nine passes.
ELCA (12-3) seemed to wear down the bigger Aquinas athletes by employing a no huddle element to its run-heavy spread attack, which has been something Gess said his team has prided itself on all season.
“We’re built to win games in the third and fourth quarter by wearing you down,” Gess said. “These guys are warriors. Even with the way things began early in the game, we knew we would have a chance to make up some ground.”
Senior linebacker Chase Burdette was one of those who said 2014’s game with Mount Paran didn’t warrant so much as a blip on his radar during ELCA’s early struggles with Aquinas.
“I mean, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, I didn’t think about it,” said Burdette who finished with nine tackles in Saturday’s game and over 500 for his career. “It was like, okay, maybe this guy just ran back the kickoff on us, but let’s go back out there and put some points on the board and win each snap.”
After ELCA’s final celebratory gathering and prayer in the locker room, Gess gave his players a message similar to what he told his bunch in the same place after last year’s loss when he waited just 24 days after the loss to start preparations for 2015.
“Juniors, you’ve got three weeks to enjoy this and get over it,” Gess said. “And whenever the first Wednesday in January is, we’re getting back after it for next year.”
Of course this time when he addressed his team, he did so with a smile — his voice being overshadowed by the sounds of raucous celebration.
The Chargers finished its 2015 campaign with a 12-3 mark, and captured its second championship in the last four years.
Stay tuned to thecrescentbuzz.com over the weekend for more coverage on ELCA’s state championship win.