With the competitiveness of prep football in Georgia at an all-time high, local programs have stepped up and arguably produced its best collective season in 2018.
Riverwood earned eight wins, the most victories the program has produced in a single season since 2001, and earned a spot in the Class 5A playoffs. North Atlanta won five games, which was the most since 2008 and were close to making the Class 6A postseason.
The triumvirate of Lovett, Pace and Westminter were each in the Class 3A playoffs and extended their respective postseason appearance streaks. The Class 4A playoffs featured perennial contenders Marist, St. Pius X and Woodward. Furthermore, Mount Vernon, Holy Innocents’ and Wesleyan, three programs that compete in the ultra-competitive Class A Private classification, were each postseason squads. North Springs didn’t make the Class 5A playoffs last season but were in the postseason in 2016 and 2017.
“We don’t have a lot of youth leagues outside of the Northside Youth Organization,” Westminster coach Gerry Romberg said. “We’re getting kids from the same place and it’s interesting all of these schools have had success without a big pool of players. The kids are highly motivated and led by great coaching staffs.”
The area also has the uniqueness of having private and public schools within walking distance of each other.
“We’re in a competitive region, which makes you compete every week with good football,” North Atlanta coach Sean O’Sullivan said. “The private schools are near us, so we look to get players from Sutton Middle School. The whole area is rich in talent. “
The local programs, none of which are in the highest classification of Class 7A, have small school enrollments, which means many of the athletes play multiple sports. While this may seem detrimental to the success of a football program due to limited availability during the offseason, the local coaches have embraced the versatility of their athletes.
“I believe in the multi-sport athlete,” Holy Innocents’ coach Todd Winter said. “There’s always going to be specialization even at the private schools. For us, the majority of our kids play basketball (and) baseball, wrestle and (play) lacrosse. I think its a positive thing because it keeps the competitive juices going and gets them away from football, which is a good thing. It keeps them healthier because they’re not using the same muscles.”
Lovett coach Mike Muschamp added, “It’s great for the athlete physically and mentally so they don’t get burnt out. It sharpens the competitive edge of the athlete and you avoid overuse injuries. There’s plenty of time to specialize after high school, this is a great time to try different things.”
The results of the local programs have shown this philosophy has worked.
“It’s part of an overarching offseason philosophy of the Wildcats’ coaching staff,” Romberg said. “We wanted the kids to have a chance to be kids and not be consumed with football,” Romberg said. “Many programs have started to have practices as early as the first week of June, and by the time they get to fall camp, there are diminishing returns. We want our guys to be fresh when we start practice and be excited about it.”
When the teams do convene for fall camp in early August, they find the toughest competition within their own regions.
For Wesleyan, Mount Vernon and Holy Innocents’, they compete against each other in Region 5A as well as four-time defending Class A Private state champion Eagle’s Landing Christian.
“Single A football is ultra-competitive when you start looking at the landscape and seeing how many Power Five college players are in it, especially in our region,” Winter said. “Studying the history of it, private (school) football used to not be thought of highly by college recruiters. Now more kids are going to private schools and the level of play is outstanding. The coaching is talented as well and private schools want to be competitive. There are no off weeks in our region.”
The intense competition has brought out the best football for the teams.
“We have great coaches that adapt to their personnel, which is difficult,” Mount Vernon coach Wayne Dabbs. “You’re given your team for the year, whether its 35 or 50 kids. You have to make the best plan for that particular group. We have really good talent. We’ve sent around nine kids to (colleges with NCAA) Division I scholarships and still finished third in our region. These are really good teams that can compete with 2A and 3A schools.”
The same goes for Class 3A for local programs Westminster, Lovett and Pace. Not only do they share the same region (5AAA) and neighborhood, but they have also each won a state championship within the past seven years. Furthermore, defending state champion Cedar Grove is in the region as well.
“It’s the nature of where we are right now,” Muschamp said. “It comes down to who’s at your school, and you have to do a great job of coaching them. Gerry does an excellent job at Westminster and Chris (Slade) at Pace, too. We have outstanding coaching staffs.”
The sentiment of competitive respect improving the play of football in the area is shared.
“It’s interesting because we’ve beaten each other and that’s great,” Slade said. “I like the three-school rivalry and we enjoy it. Gerry is an awesome coach and it’s the same with Mike at Lovett.”
Romberg embraces the local rivalries as well.
“We have an outstanding region with one of the lowest enrollments in Class 3A,” he said. “We can’t recruit due to high academic standards, so the kids we get are the kids we get. We have to coach them up. Mike does a great job at Lovett, and Chris does the same at Pace Academy. We have three schools right here that play at a high level and we beat each other. Every week is a battle.”
Even when most look to Class 7A as the premiere form of prep football played in Georgia, local programs are showing there’s excellence at every level.
“I’ve been in Georgia seven years and seen some good success, and the difference between Single A and 7A is simply numbers,” Winter said. “The overall talent isn’t far off. We have kids with college offers. It’s extremely competitive and think it’s easier in 2A than Single A.”
Pridgen added, “It’s as good as any football in the state. The quality is the same, and we have players that can start for any team in the state. We don’t have the depth of bigger schools, but Class A has some great players and coaching staffs that produce great teams.”
In the end, the sport simply is itself and provides the truest reality.
“Football is football,” Slade said. “The biggest difference is depth. At the end of the day, it’s 11-on-11 and if you have depth at certain positions, especially the line, you can compete with anybody.”