The trio of local private schools in Classes 4A and 5A – Marist, St. Pius X and Woodward – are looking to make another state playoff run after advancing to the second round or later last year.

Marist went 13-0 and won the 4A crown with a win over Jefferson in the title game. It was the War Eagles’ third state championship in school history and first since 2003. This year’s team returns only three starters each on offense and defense, so head coach Alan Chadwick said it must create its own identity.

“We’ve to figure out who we are,” he said. “We have to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I don’t want to compare this team to last year because it was an exceptional group, but we’re Marist and we expect to be successful.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us because we lost so much talent and experience. That group was a very experienced one and very successful one throughout their career at Marist. We’ve got a very difficult schedule.

Marist lost several senior starters, many of which were college signees – C Henry Clark, TE/OLB/DE Derek McDonald (Syracuse), DE/FB Lincoln Parker (Army), MLB Tyler Hare, FS Josh Moore (UCLA), SS Justin Hartwell (Furman), OLB Gray Taylor, OT Ian Erickson (Villanova), OL Davis McKenna (Harvard) and CB Charlie Fleming (Washington and Lee).

The War Eagles are led by five seniors – OL/DL Steve Nahmias (Duke commitment), FB/LB Andrew Mannelly and QB Champ Davis (both Wofford baseball commitments) and DL/OL Ryan Phelan and K/P Dawson Jones (both recruited by Ivy League and other small schools).

Senior OT Drew Chastain and two juniors – OL Spencer Camastro (transferred from California last year), and DL O’Keefe McKinney – are part of a group of upcoming players Marist has looking to fill starting roles.

“We’ve just got a lot of competition at all the other positions because there’s not anyone that much further (along) than anybody,” Chadwick said.

Woodward went 7-5 and fell to eventual champion Warner Robins in the second round of the 5A playoffs. The War Eagles lost four major college signees: MLB/FB Errington Truesdell (Vanderbilt), CB/WR Alan “Taco” Wright (Vanderbilt), S Khari Gee (Notre Dame) and DE Ozzie Hoffler (Kansas State).

But Woodward returns five starters on offense and eight on defense, led by five seniors – RB Demari Alston (rushed for about 1,600 yards and was all-state in 2020; recruited by several SEC and Big Ten schools), LB Deon King (recruited by service academies), CB/WR Christian Harrison (recruited by several mid-major and FCS schools), K Lee Johnson and WR/DB C.J. Burton – and junior DE A.J. Hoffler (already recruited by lots of colleges).

Juniors Nick Allen and Jalen Woods are battling for the starting QB slot. Allen played a lot in 2020 and started Woodward’s final game after senior Banks Snellings was injured in the previous contest.

“Obviously we have a tough non-region schedule with Marist, ELCA and Riverwood, but I feel we have a good group of returning experienced players that I’m really optimistic about this season,” head coach John Hunt said. “We’ve had an outstanding offseason and summer in training, probably the best we’ve had in many years. We’ve got a group of unselfish, hardworking players that makes the coaches believe we’re very optimistic about having a solid season.”

Hunt said Woodward, a 3A program based on enrollment, must play in 5A because of the GHSA’s double-multiplier rule for private schools, and that puts the War Eagles at a disadvantage in its region and playoff games.

“What I learned last year is we tend to be outmatched physically up front,” he said. “While we’ve got some good, hardnosed, tough guys up front, when we get (to play) those 5A teams, up front they outweigh us size-wise. We (have) smart, coachable, players, but when you get into the playoffs, you see some really big teams with size up front. I’m optimistic because we have a good core players returning, including some linemen, so hopefully we can overcome that size difference.”

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