A little inclement weather wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits surrounding Saturday’s fourth-annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes East/West Football Classic.
Seniors from Hall County, Banks county and Jackson County battled through frigid temperatures and sporadic rain, with Team West prevailing 27-7 at Riverside Military Academy. Coaches from each participating school picked four of their players for the game’s rosters based on character and on-field ability.
For players, the honor extended beyond that. The game gave many of them one last chance to take the field, this time alongside rivals as well as friends.
“It was very special to play with kids that I had been playing against my whole life, basically since I was in second grade,” said Team West and Chestatee linebacker Nick Beard. “I’ve been competing with them since I was little. It was great for all of us to come together and finally play together as a unit. We had a great time together and had a lot of fun.”
Players from West Hall, Chestatee, Gainesville, North Hall, Lakeview Academy, Jackson County and Commerce High formed Team West.
Team East was comprised of players from Flowery Branch, Johnson, East Hall, Banks County, Riverside Military Academy, Jefferson and East Jackson.
Both teams featured at least one coach from each participating school, and they had just three 90-minute practices this week to install packages and plays. Coaches said that task was much easier for the defense than for the offense.
That was evident from the opening kickoff.
Neither team consistently moved the ball, instead relying on big plays to produce points. Both squads gained less than 230 total yards and suffered from a series of fumbles and dropped passes in the cold, wet setting.
“I think the conditions really played into the game,” said Team East and Johnson High head coach Jason Roquemore.
Gainesville’s Brandon Reyna kicked a pair of field goals for Team West in the first quarter, splitting the uprights from 20 and 35 yards. A fumble by East Hall running back Deon Ellison deep in the East squads own territory set up the second field goal.
West Hall quarterback Jacob Satterfield put Team West ahead 13-0 in the second quarter with a 13-yard rushing touchdown. The teams then traded five punts before halftime.
Beard opened the second half by intercepting East Jackson quarterback Josh Adair and returning it 30 yards for a score. Teammates mobbed him in celebration, running through the back of the end zone all the way to the track surrounding the field.
“It was pretty special, especially in my last game,” Beard said. “I was playing with all my boys that I grew up with, and it’s good to go out there and secure that win with them. It was a good feeling.”
Later in the third quarter, Team East finally got on the board with a quarterback sneak by Adair. The 1-yard touchdown was set up by a trick play on third-and-10 when Banks County quarterback Griffin Goodwin threw a backward pass to East Hall receiver Markese Jackson, who then heaved a 60-yard pass to Banks County receiver Bryce Bennett.
“In practice we had a couple periods every day where we were creative, and the kids love doing stuff like that,” Roquemore said. “In an all-star game, you throw the kitchen sink at them.”
Team West quickly struck back when Gainesville’s Rodarious Timmons took a short pass and sped down the sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.
Team East had chances to score on its final two possessions but came away empty-handed both times. Banks County kicker Ramiro Cuadra missed a 38-yard field goal, and a mishandled snap with a minute to play resulted in the team’s second fumble of the game.
Gainesville defensive tackle Herve Aklotsoe fell on the final fumble to seal the win. He produced plenty of pressure as a pass-rusher and was also instrumental in holding Team East to just 54 yards on the ground.
“I think we played really well up front defensively,” said Team West and Jackson County head coach Brandon Worley. “The kids did what they were asked to do. We had a couple breakdowns late in the secondary on a couple trick plays, but other than that, everybody played sound and did their job. With defense, that’s what it’s about.”
After the game, both teams gathered at midfield for a prayer. Players then took photos with each other, and many from Team West posed with the game’s trophy.
That quick camaraderie is something coaches said they enjoy most about the FCA all-star game.
“At the first practice, everybody is quiet. Nobody wants to take a knee beside each other. But by Day 2, they’re all talking,” Worley said. “They’re kids, so it doesn’t take them very long to get to know one another and kind of fall right in line. It was awesome to see that happen so quickly.”