ATLANTA — The Class A public championship game between Marion County and Charlton County may have been what some fans of today’s offense-driven football consider “ugly.”
Eagles coach Mike Swaney said that description couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It was actually beautiful,” Swaney said with a smile after his team topped the Indians 12-3 on Saturday at the Georgia Dome to capture its first state title in school history. “I’m a defensive coordinator and always have been. I’ve got that kicker (A.J. Wells), and I’m smart enough to know what I’ve got.”
What he had was a punter, Wells, who could continuously give the Eagles an edge in the field position battle. That was the only advantage Marion County would need, as it shut out the Indians after their opening-drive field goal.
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“We said at the end of the first quarter that the defense was starting to settle in,” Swaney said. “I said, ‘We’re going to field position and kick it, and let’s don’t turn it over.’ We finally flipped that field in the third and fourth quarters.”
The teams played a 3-3 tie at halftime, and the stalemate continued immediately out of the gate in the second half. They traded three-and-outs, and on its second possession of the third quarter, Marion County could only get one first down before being forced to punt again.
Wells punted to the 2-yard line, and Swaney knew that could be the opportunity the Eagles needed.
“I told the coaches when we downed the ball right there, I was fixin’ to bring the house,” Swaney said. “If they would have thrown to the running back out of the backfield, he probably would have been open.”
Instead, the Eagles brought the pressure, forced a fumble and appeared to recover the ball in the end zone. The officials ruled that the ball was recovered out of bounds, and Marion County got the safety to take a 5-3 lead.
“I thought it was a touchdown, but I’m still proud we did that,” said Quantez Freeman, who pounced on the ball after the fumble. “That gave us the momentum. It just pumped everybody up. Everybody was ready to get back on the field.”
It took two more drives to get into the end zone after that, but finally the Eagles did two plays into the final quarter. Running back Lorenzo Smothers ran three times for 21 yards to set Marion County up at the Indians 22-yard line. On third-and-11, quarterback Dustin Eckert found Smothers in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown pass to put the Eagles ahead by two possessions, 12-3.
After that, the Eagles continued to do what they do best to run out the clock: Run the ball, win field position and play strong defense.
“We knew the defense was going to have to rise to the top,” said Smothers, who finished with 105 yards rushing, 31 and a touchdown receiving and an interception on defense. “They were doing a good job of slowing down our offense, so we knew defense was going to have to make some stops.”
The defense allowed only 137 yards of total offense, holding Indians quarterback Trae Harrington to a 2-of-19 performance with only 8 passing yards and an interception. Charlton County running back Andrew Lee, who had averaged 196 yards per game in the playoffs, finished with 118, 110 of which game in the first half and 49 of which came on one play.
The football championship marks the completion of a long journey for Marion County, which for years, dating back to Tri-County High, never made postseason noise. Prior to the high school change, Tri-County never made the playoffs and played a region final just once in 1986. Marion County first made the playoffs in 2009, under previous coach Bill Montgomery. The Eagles won 10 games and a region championship in Swaney’s first season (2010) and have shared or won the region every year since.
“If you go back when it was Tri-County, they didn’t win many football games,” Swaney said. “A lot of people have been coming to games for a long time and had very little joy. So, you know, someone told me this week, you just don’t realize what this means to the young people and the old people in the community.”
It showed. The Eagles filled the entire lower section of their side of the stadium, a crowd that rivaled those of higher-classification schools. The football championship just gave those fans another title to cheer for, as the school also earned titles in tennis and track this spring.
They will look for more success going forward, as the bulk — nine of 11 players — return on offense next season.
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Saturday at the Georgia Dome
Charlton 3 0 0 0—3
Marion 0 3 2 7—12
CC—Thomas Johnson 25 field goal; 8:21
MC—A.J. Wells 22 field goal; :10
MC—Lorenzo Smothers 22 pass from Dustin Eckert (Wells kick); 11:47
Records: Charlton County, 9-5; Marion County, 13-1.