McDONOUGH, Ga. —It’s a very young season, but Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy coach, Jonathan Gess may have asked the no-brainer question of the year.
In the postgame team huddle after Class A No. 5 ELCA’s 14-0 shutout win over Class 5A No. 4 Woodward Academy, (MaxPreps.com rankings) Gess asked, “Is it safe to say that Charis Spence gets the game ball tonight?”
Spence’s teammates answered with a roar of applause. And rightly so, especially after Spence recorded four sacks, including one late in the fourth quarter that forced Woodward into a third-and-long situation, which opened the door for Peter Simmons to put the punctuation mark on one of ELCA’s most impressive non-region victories.
On the third down play, Woodward senior quarterback Banks Snelling dropped back and tossed a pass over the middle, right into the hands of a leaping Simmons. Simmons darted toward the left sideline, breaking several tackles en route to a pick six that provided the game’s final score.
“We were in Cover 1, and I was just playing the robber hole,” Simmons said matter-of-factly. “And when the ball came out, I just got it.”
That’s when Simmons showed off a running back’s reflexes and tenacity while pushing past a couple of Woodward tacklers on his way to the end zone.
“I’m a dog,” he said. “I ran through it. Of course I’m looking to take it to the house.”
The interesting thing about Simmons’ interception and score was that he nabbed Snelling’s errant pass from the mike linebacker spot, even though corner and safety are the 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior’s most natural position.
“Our mike linebacker got hurt in practice, and we asked Peter to play mike for us this week,” Gess said. “So here he is, this safety/corner kind of player, and we’re asking you to play mike linebacker, and he does it without hesitation. I think maybe it’s just an exclamation mark from the Lord for him about what happens when you do what’s best for the team and you do whatever the team needs you to do.
“He so desperately wanted a pick six as a DB. Well I’m gonna give you one as a mike linebacker.”
But, again, it was Spence’s heroics that served up not just that play, but several other key stops throughout the game. Actually, the front seven swarmed Woodward all game, limiting its big-play offense, and keeping 4-star junior running back Damari Alston from ripping off any momentum-shifting runs.
“Specne is unblockable as a pass rusher,” Gess said. “He’s about 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. He runs a legit 4.5 40, but a lot of times we’re asking him to play the tackle and play run, but on third downs and 2nd-and-long plays, we can widen him out and just say, ‘go,’ and if we do that, you can’t block him. We knew we could do that. And so (Friday night) it was just us unleashing him and learning what we can do in certain situations.”
Meanwhile, ELCA’s offense did just enough early in the first half to give its defense the chance to win the game.
On a night when ELCA senior quarterback Phil Massengale and the offense struggled to find a rhythm, a first-quarter bright spot proved to be enough to get the job done.
After Woodward Academy missed wide left on a 38-yard field goal, Massengale hooked up with Deandre Allred on a 39-yard pass play that got the Chargers across midfield. Two plays later, Massengale took off on a zone read keeper for 28 yards that set up a 9-yard scamper that put ELCA up 7-0 with 41.6 seconds left in the first quarter.
From there, it was tough sledding for the Chargers’ offense, partly due to injuries to key players like senior fullback Sam Allred who sat out the rest of the game after tweaking a knee in the first quarter, and partly due to that early-season search for chemistry that happens when you’re breaking in a new quarterback and receiving corps.
And then a stout defense from a top-ranked Class 5A program didn’t help matters either.
“Woodward’s really good,” Gess said. “That’s just a really good defense we played, so that definitely contributed to the struggle. But when Sam went down, that really hurt, because he’s a big part of what we do. I still thought that maybe, just maybe, we could do enough to hang on for the victory. But it would be because our defense was playing hard.”
Gess said Sam Allred’s injury appears to be minor, and he expects him to be back in practice at some point next week. That week of practice, Gess says, will be spent trying to get the offense clicking on all cylinders.
“It means we just need to work at figuring out an identity,” he said. “We’ll go back next week and find out what didn’t work and why it didn’t work and what we need to do. A lot of issues were the quarterback getting the signals wrong, or having a kid who’s never played fullback before who didn’t always know what we’re doing. We also had some stuff open that we didn’t hit. But I’ve gotta get better too as a coach, and get to know our team and what we can do.”
But in the meantime, Gess told his bunch to enjoy the program’s first win in three tries against a Class 5A powerhouse and use it to build momentum for a season that boasts a schedule that includes Pace Academy, Crisp County and defending Class 4A state champion Blessed Trinity.
“I just think it’s big for our program and kids to beat Woodward” Gess said. “Our goal is always to be in the hunt for a state championship, and this win gets us rolling. It gives us energy going into practice Monday. Who knows what this win is going to do going forward, but I like this team. I definitely know that.”