Wesleyan was not in a good place the last time it played Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy.
The Wolves were coming off their first loss of the season, a 31-0 rout at the hands of Holy Innocents’ on Sept. 27, and were missing three key starters.
The four-time defending state champion Chargers crushed them 54-17.
“Our arch rival, Holy Innocents’, didn’t just beat us, but humiliated us on our home field,” Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen said. “We played the worst football game that we’ve played in years and, hey, your reward for that is you get to go play ELCA at their place where we’ve historically never played well.
“Honestly, I think it was just too tall a mountain for us to climb — at that time. But my emphasis to these guys, and what they believe, is that we’re different.”
The Wolves haven’t lost since, racking up win after win to end up in the state final for the first time since winning the title in 2008.
“It was after the ELCA game that these guys stood at a crossroad,” Pridgen said. “They could have taken the easy, wide path to riding off into the sunset. Well, we beat Prince Avenue, what a wonderful season highlight. Or they could fight through the snares and the briars of the narrow path that is less traveled, to quote Robert Frost, and fight our way to something unforgettable. I think it’s obvious what they chose to do.”
Despite their efforts, Wesleyan remains the underdog. The Wolves have been underestimated before — to the detriment of several teams sitting at home this week.
“I’ll say it — everyone else is — the right side of the bracket was the tough and the left side was a cakewalk,” Pridgen said. “I agree with the right bracket. I think anybody that watches our games — Savannah Christian wasn’t a cakewalk, Christian Heritage on the road wasn’t a cakewalk, Fellowship on the road wasn’t a cakewalk.
“We just happen to be playing our best football right now.”
The Wolves placement in the bracket came after they were pushed out of the top eight in the power rankings and didn’t get a first-round bye. The Wolves fell to ninth after Fellowship Christian upset Darlington and leapfrogged them in the mercurial Class A Private system.
The playoff opener against First Presbyterian Day was a grind-it-out battle.
“It was no joke,” Pridgen said. “With all due respect to the other playoff teams, I thought FPD was fantastic. That’s what is amazing about this run. In my experience, any time you go deep in the playoffs, there’s always one game that is the real gut check. It just so happens that our gut check came first.
“I think we used what we learned from the gut-check and said, hey, this is how we win. It paid off for us even though those scores were more lopsided than the FPD score.”
Last week, to get to the finals, Wesleyan had to handle fast-paced Fellowship Christian, which runs plays about every 15 seconds. The Wolves made it look easy, cruising to a 56-20 victory.
They’re going to see tempo again Friday morning.
“I don’t think ELCA hangs their hat on it quite like Fellowship did, but it is something that hurt us (last time),” Pridgen said. “We were out of position a lot and we weren’t lined up right. We just didn’t handle it well. But we’re far better equipped now.
“Look, ELCA is still big and strong and really fast. Keaton Mitchell is an incredible back and they’ve got outstanding playmakers and a really good line of scrimmage. I think Jonathan Gess is one of the best high school football coaches I’ve ever seen. I really do. We know who they are. I just don’t know that they know who we are.”
The ELCA aura is hard to discount. The Chargers weren’t held under 40 points until the quarterfinals and the 21 they scored on Holy Innocents’ in the semis was the season low. They are led by their seniors — Mitchell at running back and a pair of terrific wide receivers in Justin Robinson and Devon Dorsey.
They’ve also never lost to Wesleyan in six previous meetings.
“I know if the roles were reversed, it would be really hard for me to tell our kids, ‘Hey we have to be out here in the cold, in the wind, for an extra half an hour or an extra 10 reps,’” Pridgen said. “It would be really hard for me to make that case and have them buy it.
“I don’t have to (make that case here). They do it for me.”
Wesleyan, younger but also talented at the skill positions, is averaging nearly 42 points per game in the playoffs. The Wolves have a sophomore quarterback in J.C. French who has thrown for 2,680 yards with 31 touchdowns. He’s also run for 16 more scores. Senior Micah Smith and sophomore Cooper Blauser are his primary targets and sophomore Griffin Caldwell leads the rushing attack with 1,120 yards.