On the eve of the state playoffs, we hear from the leaders of two teams the seemingly came out of nowhere this season – Al Morrell of Fellowship Christian of Roswell and Keith Holloway of Mt. Zion-Carroll.
Morrell, in his fourth season, led the Paladins to an unblemished regular season record and the Region 6 title. In his first three seasons, Fellowship was a combined 14-16.
The team the Paladins defeated for the region title last week, 28-14, was Holloway’s Mt. Zion squad. Six years ago, before Holloway arrived, the Eagles were coming off of back-to-back 0-10 seasons. Mt. Zion was 10-10 in Holloway’s first two years, 16-8 the next two with two first-round playoff wins, and 9-1 this season with a sub-region championship.
Both earned first-round byes this weekend. Fellowship is the No. 3 seed on the private side and will face the winner of No. 19 Mt. Vernon Presbyterian at No. 14 George Walton. The Eagles are the No. 5 seed on the public side and will face the winner of No. 21 Irwin County at No. 12 Dooly.
Al Morrell, Fellowship Christian
Did you know this would be your team’s breakout season?
“Last year we lost four games by one score. We knew we were close to being competitive. This class of seniors was our first freshman class that has been in the program four years. We have 17 seniors. They are a great group of kids who have bought in to what we’re doing. We went to a full-contact camp over the summer and got banged around by some bigger teams like Sequoyah, Lambert and Fitzgerald. But our kids competed.”
What has been the biggest difference this season?
“We lost four linebackers and all of our offensive line except for two players, but we had a lot of depth at our skill positions. The big question was whether our JV kids could get used to the speed of Friday night, especially our offensive line. But our offensive line coach Tim Rice has done a great job with that group. We knew our team had great potential. We lost some close games last year but this group has great chemistry. They believe in each other and they want to win.”
You’ve spent most of your career coaching in the larger classifications. What’s been the biggest difference in Class A?
“The biggest challenge is the [lack] of depth. That impacts the way you practice and the level of skill on your scout team. When you have 120 in your program you don’t have to deal with situations where you have kids who don’t leave the field. We have 47 in ninth through twelfth grade. We play a lot of kids both ways but we’re able to get some kids some rest by rotating them. Most of the kids on our defensive line don’t play both. Our kids from JV last year have really stepped up.”
What have been the keys to success this season?
“Our kicking game has been solid all year. Jonathan Consoli kicks off for us and has gotten a bunch of touchbacks, which has given us an advantage in field position. Garrett Depew handles the place kicking for us and he’s been really good, too. Our offensive and defensive lines have been sound. We’ve gotten great play out of our skill positions. Our quarterback, Jack Hardin, has been throwing the ball well even though we are primarily a running offense. Our wing-T has been averaging in the high 200s [rushing] all year. On defense most of the players on our front are back and have a lot of experience. Our new linebackers have stepped in and been outstanding. This team has great chemistry. They play hard for each other. These kids are playing at their full potential probably more than any team I’ve coaches. We may not be quite as athletic as some other teams, but our kids play hard.”
Keith Holloway, Mt. Zion-Carroll
Your teams have been successful the past two seasons, but when did you know this would be a special season?
“We thought going into the season that we would be pretty competitive. This is a big senior group (14). They’ve been in our program for four years and they’ve bought in to how hard we work in the weight room and to the way we do things. They’ve done a great job of being leaders. They play hard all the time and that sets the tone for our program.”
Carrollton has always been the dominant program in the community. How have you and your staff been able to keep your kids coming to Mt. Zion?
“Certainly Carrollton has been the program for a long, long time. But Carroll County is full of great athletes and great kids. We’ve just tried to build the best program we can and asked kids to give us a chance. The biggest thing is that we’ve had a little success and won some games. The kids see that and they think, why not stay and play in my community. Now they take pride in wearing that letterman jacket and what it means to play and go to school at Mt. Zion.”
After going into the region title game undefeated for the first time, how have your kids dealt with their first loss of the season?
“They’ve handled it well. We came in on Monday and talked about it, how we need to learn from it and move on. Your goal is to win all your games, but it’s hard to go 10-0. Fellowship Christian is a great team and we think they’ll go far in the private school playoffs. But our kids will be settled and focused. They know that everybody is 0-0 now. This bye week is good for us because it gives us a chance to heal up and rest.”
Where do you think the team can improve?
“We turned the ball over a couple of times against Fellowship, which is something that we haven’t done this season. We’ve done a good job of holding on to the ball. We’re primarily a running offense, so we’ve got to stay on our blocks better. We’re a ball control offense so we need those long drives.”
You are one of several teams this season that have a realistic shot at winning the championship. What do you think about the depth of Class A this season?
“I told our staff that this is the strongest I’ve seen Class A in a long time, on both sides. You’ve had some really good teams drop down from AA to add to the teams that were already in our classification. There are so many really good teams – Clinch, Irwin, ECI, Macon County, Manchester. I think it will boil down to the team that has the fewest injuries.”
Tonight’s first round games:
Upper Left Bracket
No. 17 First Presbyterian Day at No. 16 Aquinas
(Winner faces No. 1 Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy)
No. 24 Brookstone at. No. 9 Pinecrest Academy
(Winner faces No. 8 Wesleyan)
No. 20 Hebron Christian at No. 13 Savannah Christian
(Winner faces No. 4 Calvary Day)
No. 21 Holy Innocents at No. 12 Stratford Academy
(Winner faces No. 5 Tattnall Square Academy)
No. 18 Mt. Pisgah Christian at No. 15 Athens Christian
(Winner faces No. 2 Prince Avenue Christian)
No. 23 Walker School at No. 10 Darlington
(Winner faces No. 7 Landmark Christian School)
No. 19 Mt. Vernon Presbyterian at No. 14 George Walton
(Winner faces No. 3 Fellowship Christian)
No. 22 Savannah Country Day at No. 11 Athens Academy
(Winner faces No. 6 Mt. Paran Christian)
No. 17 Turner County at No. 16 Terrell County
(Winner faces No. 1 Macon County)
No. 24 Marion County at No. 9 Twiggs County
(Winner faces No. 8 Manchester)
No. 20 Bowdon at No. 13 Miller County
(Winner faces No. 4 Emanuel County Institute)
No. 21 Irwin County at No. 12 Dooly County
(Winner faces No. 5 Mt. Zion-Carroll)
No. 18 Randolph-Clay at No. 15 Mitchell County
(Winner faces No. 2 Clinch County)
No. 23 Trion at No. 10 Taylor County
(Winner faces No. 7 Commerce)
No. 19 Wheeler County at No. 14 Greene County
(Winner faces No. 3 Pelham)
No. 22 Washington-Wilkes at No. 11 Lincoln County
(Winner faces No. 6 McIntosh County Institute)