For the second straight week, the Mary Persons Bulldogs will host an Atlanta-area superpower in a must-win playoff game at Dan Pitts Stadium
The Bulldogs will take on Marist at 7:30 p.m. on Friday in the quarterfinals of the AAAA state playoffs. The visiting War Eagles, who ironically have the same mascot as MP’s opponent last Friday, Woodward Academy, played in the 2017 AAAA state title game, losing 16-7 to champion Blessed Trinity.
Friday will assuredly be the final game of the season at Dan Pitts Stadium as MP lost a coin toss Tuesday afternoon to determine the site of its semifinal game. If MP beats Marist, it would face the winner of the quarterfinal matchup between Baldwin and Cartersville on the road.
The Bulldogs and War Eagles have faced off just once in their storied histories, and that meeting took place recently. Marist came to Forsyth for a second-round showdown in 2015 and handed the Bulldogs their lone loss of the season in a 45-21 pounding of MP. The lone current Bulldog who played a key role in the 2015 contest is senior running back Quen Wilson, who, as a freshman, rushed for a game-high 132 yards and two touchdowns against the War Eagles.
Marist’s vaunted triple-option attack proved too much for the MP defense to handle on that 2015 night, running over the Bulldogs for 402 rushing yards and scoring three touchdowns in the final 5:02 to pull away in what was a tight contest for much of the evening. Marist fullback Michael Addicks was the War Eagles’ star, rushing for 126 yards and four touchdowns, including all three fourth-quarter scores. MP was plagued by mistakes in the 2015 contest, including three turnovers and 13 penalties.
Despite many MP fans vividly remembering the 2015 defeat, MP head coach Brian Nelson said he’s not thinking of the 2018 game as a revenge meeting.
“Most of these kids probably don’t even remember it,” Nelson said. “This group is a little bit different in terms of that. They gel well together. They get along well with each other. They play well with each other. We’ll prepare and just play it like it is. We probably won’t even talk about that (2015 game) that much. We’ll just play it and see what happens.”
With 712 all-time wins, the fifth-most in Georgia high school history, Marist is one of the state’s most esteemed programs, led by one of the state’s famed coaches. Head man Alan Chadwick is in his 34th year at the helm, having won 374 games in his career, the second highest wins total in state history behind only Larry Campbell’s 477. Former head coach Dean Hargis led the War Eagles to four state title games in a six-season span between 1979-84, and Chadwick picked up right where Hargis left off when he arrived in 1985. Under Chadwick, Marist has reached the state semifinals 14 times, the state finals six times and captured state championships in 1989 and 2003. During Marist’s most recent title run in ‘03, the War Eagles’ star signal caller was quarterback Sean McVay, the current head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and youngest head man in modern NFL history upon his 2017 hiring.
It will be just Marist’s sixth visit to a Middle Georgia school in the past 50 years, including the 2015 MP contest. The 2018 War Eagles, 10-2 overall (5-1 in Region 7-AAAA), are led by junior quarterback Connor Cigelske and the multi-dimensional talents of 6’3”, 190-pound senior Kyle Hamilton, who plays both wide receiver and defensive back. A Notre Dame commit, Hamilton is the state’s No. 19-ranked senior prospect per 247sports.com. On defense, senior defensive end Ryan Mannelly is a standout while on special teams, senior kicker/punter Brendan Farrell was an All-State selection a year ago.
With Marist’s ball-control offense expected to eat up clock, Nelson said it’s critical that MP’s offense cashes in touchdowns on its drives.
“I think you’ve gotta maintain possession but you’ve gotta be able to score,” Nelson said of MP’s mindset on offense. “Because they don’t allow you to get as many opportunities. So the opportunities that you do get, you’ve got to take advantage of them. We’re gonna have to score when we have the ball and at the same time try to possess it.”
The only common opponent between MP and Marist in 2018 is AAA Lovett. The War Eagles defeated the Lions 40-20 at home in their 2018 season opener on Aug. 24. Two weeks later, MP handed the Lions a 58-21 loss in Forsyth. Marist also recorded non-region wins over Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Baylor (33-14 on Aug. 31) and AAA Westminster (24-7 on Sept. 7). The War Eagles’ lone non-region defeat came at the hands of AAAA rival St. Pius, falling 17-0 on Sept. 14 on their home field. Marist then demolished its first five Region 7-AAAA opponents (White County, Chestatee, West Hall, Denmark and Flowery Branch) by a combined score of 228-34 before losing 10-7 at Region 7-AAAA champion Blessed Trinity in its regular season finale. Marist then opened the AAAA state playoffs with a dominant 61-20 win over Heritage (Ringgold) on Nov. 9 before avenging its regular season loss to St. Pius last Friday.
According to ajc.com, Marist led St. Pius 3-2 when Cigelske ran for a 42-yard touchdown with 4:46 left in the second quarter to put the War Eagles in front 10-2. After St. Pius answered right back with a 68-yard touchdown pass from Connor Egan to Matthew Horner, Hamilton responded with an 18-yard touchdown run off of a direct snap with 18 seconds left before halftime to put Marist up 17-8. Cigelske then finished off the scoring with a 79-yard third-quarter touchdown run for the final 24-8 margin.
Marist has a legendary athletic department, having captured 142 state athletic championships and put 13 alums in the NFL. In 2004, Sports Illustrated ranked the Brookhaven private school No. 15 on its list of the best high school athletic programs in the country. Marist alums not known for playing football include: golf legend Bobby Jones, NBA star Matt Harpring, sports announcer Ernie Johnson Jr. and Fox News correspondent Bret Baier. Actor David Hasselhoff also attended Marist but did not graduate.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs continued their electric offensive pace against Woodward last Friday, exploding for a new school record 65 points. The outburst enabled the Bulldogs to extend their program single season scoring record to 591 points. If MP’s run continues to the state championship game, the Bulldogs, who are averaging 49.25 points per game, would have to maintain that same average through the rest of the season to eclipse Washington County’s 2014 state record total of 737 points scored.
MP senior quarterback J.T. Hartage, who has already shattered every major program single season and career passing record, has completed 70 percent of his passes in 2018 for 2,652 yards and 28 touchdowns with just three interceptions. In fact, MP has protected the ball exceptionally well in 2018, committing just eight turnovers, with three of those eight coming on special teams.
MP senior running back Quen Wilson could also make history on Friday, needing just two touchdowns to set a new school record for rushing touchdowns in a single season. Averaging 9.3 yards per carry, Wilson has rushed for 1,484 yards and 24 TDs in 2018 while also adding four more touchdowns as a receiver. MP wide receiver De’Adrek Alford could also get in the record-breaking mix against Marist, needing just one touchdown to set a new school record for receiving TDs in a single season. Alford leads MP in receiving yards with 749 and touchdowns with 12 while senior slot receiver Antoine Davis leads the Bulldogs in receptions with 36. Davis set a program record for single season receptions in 2017 with 47.
On defense, senior linebacker Ladamian Sands and senior safety Desmond Williams share the team lead in tackles with 59 while Williams leads MP in interceptions with six, four of which he has returned for scores. The team’s third leading tackler, senior Jumon Wilson, left MP’s victory over Woodward early with an apparent leg injury. Wilson’s availability for Friday’s game was not known as of presstime.
Despite an early forecast that shows a heavy chance of rain for Friday’s game, Nelson said he hopes as many Monroe Countians as possible will show up to support the Bulldogs.
“I hope people will be home for Thanksgiving and they’ll show up and come out here,” Nelson said. “We need that. The kids feed off of that. So anybody out there that hasn’t been coming, come on. We need you.”