When Walter Ingram played for Boys Catholic High School, football was much different from today – and so was the school’s success.
“We maybe had a season where we’d win six or seven games,” said Ingram, a fullback who graduated in 1945. “We thought that was high cotton.”
The pinnacle of Boys Catholic football came when the team played the Academy of Richmond County in the popular Thanksgiving Day contests, defeating the Musketeers twice and tying them once in a four-year span in the 1950s. Now, there’s a new high-water mark.
Aquinas High School, which opened in 1957 after the merger of Boys Catholic and Mount St. Joseph Academy, plays for its first football state championship Friday, when it faces Calvary Day at 2:30 p.m. in the Class A private school championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. For longtime observers such as Ingram, having the undefeated Irish play in the final game of the season is nothing short of extraordinary.
“I’m just so happy I can’t stand it,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Though Ingram, 86, and his wife, Norma, will watch the game on television station WCES (Channel 20), the school is sending six busloads of fans to Atlanta. As of Thursday evening, Aquinas had sold 1,187 tickets to the game – more than four times its enrollment, according to Jennifer Matthews, the assistant athletic director.
Aquinas and St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School are closed Friday.
“Everybody is so excited,” said Pat Rice, a lawyer who played end for Aquinas from 1956-58. “It’s a proud feeling for our little school to come this far. We’re riding the crest right now.”
Aquinas is the first Augusta team to play in the Georgia Dome since Lucy C. Laney High played there in the 2004 semifinals. The Irish are the first Augusta team to play for a state title since 1995, when T.W. Josey High claimed the championship.
After decades of football futility, Aquinas has won 30 games the past three seasons. This year, the Irish are 13-0, including a win over rival Lincoln County in the regular season en route to their first Region 7-A title. For diehard fans who have seen many of Aquinas’ 41 losing seasons in 57 years, the thought of playing for a championship is unbelievable.
“I never thought it would happen,” said Ed Holmes, a 1966 graduate. “Everybody’s excited about this. Everybody’s coming out of the woodwork.”
Aquinas sent four busloads of fans to last week’s semifinal contest at Mount Pisgah in Alpharetta, Ga. In rainy conditions, the Irish rallied late and scored the game-tying touchdown on a 5-yard pass from Liam Welch to John Morris with 19 seconds remaining. Then, Justin Thompson nailed the extra point for the 17-16 win to send Aquinas to the championship.
Now, many Augustans – young and old – are savoring the moment. Optometrist Ben Casella, the Aquinas quarterback in 1997 and 1998, won’t be able to attend the contest, but he’ll plan to watch it on the Internet.
“This has really just brought the Irish Nation together,” he said. “This is too good to be true, but it’s happening.”
Johnny Owens, who played center and defensive guard for Boys Catholic from 1952-54, said he’s looking forward to the game. Owens said he has kept up with Aquinas through the years because the school has a tight-knit community thanks to the generations of families who have attended St. Mary on the Hill Catholic Church.
For families such as the Ingrams, the ties from Boys Catholic to Aquinas remain as strong as ever. Sophomore running back and linebacker Drew Ingram wears the same number (No. 26) his grandfather wore seven decades earlier. The team is filled with second- and third-generation players, and first-year coach James Leonard is the grandson of Denny Leonard, who led Aquinas and Boys Catholic for 21 years.
For the schools, there’s plenty of history and memories. Former players still talk about players such as quarterback Joe Sheehan, who scored the game-winning touchdown on a short sneak up the middle in a 9-6 win over Richmond Academy in 1957. They talk about men such as Howard Willis, who worked for Denny Leonard as an unpaid volunteer assistant coach, arriving to practices on time after working his shift at a dairy. And the younger generation talks about players such as Brendan Douglas, the standout running back who now plays the same position at the University of Georgia.
In years to come, people might speak in reverence about the current crop of players wearing Kelly green and gold, especially if Aquinas brings home its first championship.
“They’ve got a chance,” Ingram said. “I know they’ll give it all they’ve got.”