Cougars chasing state title
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They’ve been on the doorstep the past two seasons.
The Lafayette Christian School Cougars reached the state-championship game in 2018 and 2019, only to fall short both years.
Lafayette Christian will get another shot at the big prize on Friday when it hosts John Hancock Academy in the Georgia Association of Private and Parochial Class A championship game.
Lafayette Christian, the number two seed in the playoffs, beat third-seeded Griffin Christian 19-3 last week in the semifinals.
John Hancock Academy, the number four seed, upset top-seeded Georgia Christian School 22-14 to earn a title shot.
Leading the way are eight seniors who have been a part of a lot of successful moments over the years, although they’re still looking to win the big prize.
Seniors W.J. Bailey, Ben Dixon, Cameron Elliott, Cason Firth, Nathan Karvelas, Kamal Parham, Cade Parnell and Luke Taunton will line it up one more time on Friday night at their home field, and they’re hoping to make it a storybook ending to their high-school careers.
“It’s one more time with the home atmosphere,” said Parnell.
“We’ll have all of our fans cheering for us. It’s nice to be comfortable at home.”
Lafayette Christian earned its title shot with an impressive victory over Griffin Christian in a rematch of the 2019 state-championship game.
Griffin Christian won that game 19-13 last season, but Lafayette Christian dominated the rematch.
“That was one of the best games we’ve had,” Parham said. “We played hard, we played tough. We made mistakes, but we played through the mistakes, and we had a short memory.”
After the game, Lafayette Christian’s players and coaches found out that John Hancock Academy had knocked off Georgia Christian in the semifinals.
Had Georgia Christian won, it would have hosted the championship game in Valdosta, but with John Hancock winning, Lafayette Christian earned the right to host the title game as the higher seed.
“We were going to have to travel for like four hours,” Karvelas said. “We’re glad to be here.”
In essence, the Cougars got to have two celebrations in one night.
“That was great,” Bailey said. “After the game, we saw that John Hancock won, and we knew we’re at home.”
In 2018, Lafayette Christian beat Cherokee Christian 19-18 in the semifinals, and it fell to Life Christian Academy 44-0 in the championship game.
A year ago, Lafayette Christian outlasted Georgia Christian 16-6 in the semifinals before losing to Griffin Christian 19-13 in the title game.
The Cougars had possession at the end of the championship game with an opportunity to win it with a touchdown and an extra point, but a turnover ended their hopes.
Will the third time be the charm?
“We’d better win,” Dixon said, a grin on his face. “I’m tired of losing.”
Karvelas, who has been a part of a state-championship team in baseball, said “it’s almost that we have to have it. There’s no other choice.”
The Cougars have taken their lumps this season. Before the win over Griffin Christian, in fact, Lafayette Christian (4-6) had lost four straight games, but it played some formidable teams in higher classifications, including Flint River Academy.
“It’s been tough,” Taunton said. “We’ve challenged ourselves playing up to that level. We really weren’t equipped for it personnel wise with the amount of people (on the roster), but it definitely helped us out.”
A battle-tested Lafayette Christian team put it all together against Griffin Christian.
“We played good, we played strong, and we played smart,” Bailey said. “We kept our responsibilities in check.”
It was an ideal way for the Cougars to head into their most important game of the season.
“I think we’re playing the best we have all season,” Elliott said.
The key now, Parnell said, is to continue to play fundamentally-sound football.
“We’ve just got to focus on our assignments, not get too far ahead of ourselves, and just make sure we’re executing every play right,” Parnell said.
Win or lose, this will be the last hurrah for the seniors, some of whom have been playing varsity football for five years.
“It’s really kind of surreal,” Dixon said. “We’re finally here. It’s kind of weird that it’s all over.”
Firth said “it’s been really fun” to be a part of the Lafayette Christian football family.
“I’ve really enjoyed being here with my teammates, and they’re my brothers now,” Firth said. “It’s been really fun, and I’m ready for baseball after this.”
Bailey, who is hoping to keep playing football after high school, has savored every moment this season.
“I’m looking at playing football in college, but nothing’s guaranteed,” Bailey said. “I’ve just been trying to enjoy everything.”