The title trophy finally theirs, some Aquinas players leapt and were helped into the seats by students to celebrate the Irish’s first state title in football. They earned it with a 27-7 win against Calvary Day on Friday afternoon at the Georgia Dome in the Class A private state championship.
Aquinas is Augusta’s first Georgia High School Association champion in football since Josey in 1995.
“They were yelling at me. They were like, ‘Don’t go up there.’ But I was like, ‘I’m going up there,’ ” Lambert said. “So I kind of jumped and just stayed there, and they pulled me up. It was all Irish Nation.”
Led by first-year coach James Leonard, Aquinas completed a perfect 14-0 season by scoring the last 27 points against a Cavaliers team that had won 11 in a row.
The script read like most Irish games this season.
On offense, Ruben Garnett got pitches and ran, ran, ran for 111 yards and a score. Quarterback Liam Welch was efficient as usual, needing only 12 attempts to throw for 132 yards and two touchdowns, with Daniel Lindsey catching both.
On defense, the Irish didn’t snap under pressure. After falling behind 7-0, Aquinas stopped three Calvary Day drives that reached the Irish 20 or deeper. The state champions also picked off Cavaliers quarterback Michael Peterson three times and had five sacks.
Aquinas held Calvary Day to a season low in points.
The plays came from everywhere, too. The interceptions were from three different players and the sacks were attributed to five more.
“It’s just crazy right now,” said Lindsey, who had one of the picks. “We made history. Nobody thought we could do it, but we got the job done.”
Aquinas had its first important stop when the Cavaliers led 7-0 in the second quarter. Calvary Day running back Robert Heyward was strong, as he was embarking on a 154-yard ground day, but on fourth down from the 16, the Cavaliers (11-3) passed. Napoleon Williams and Shalom Alvarez got to Peterson.
The turnaround was sudden. At the end of the first quarter, Aquinas had more fumbles (two recovered) than first downs (one). A mistimed snap also cost the Irish 21 yards.
But following that Aquinas fourth-down hold, it was all Irish for the rest of the half. From there, Aquinas picked up 134 yards without committing any penalties and scored two touchdowns. Calvary Day had 31 yards with one penalty.
Aquinas used more late first-half magic to lead for the first time. When Welch connected with Lindsey for a 12-yard touchdown with 11 seconds to go, the Irish made it six games in a row where they scored with 17 seconds or less to go in the second quarter.
Up 14-7 at the half, Aquinas kept surging, stopping fourth-down attempts from its 18 and 27 and that doesn’t account for the three interceptions.
The Irish padded the lead with another Welch-to-Lindsey strike and a 33-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter by John Morris on his first carry of the game.
“They gave me the ball. I knew it might be my last carry, my first carry, so I took it to the house,” Morris said. “The offensive line did a great job blocking.”
A program that hadn’t won a state playoff game until 2011 would get its first state title two years later. And it reached No. 1 while coached by a Leonard. Denny Leonard was Aquinas’ first coach; his grandson became the first to lead it to a state championship.
“Aquinas, we’re one big family,” James Leonard said. “We like to tweet ‘family’ all the time. We’re a family. That’s our advantage every Friday night.”
In the stands, the players helped their supporters sing the Aquinas alma mater.
“It was a good note to end on… no pun intended,” Lambert grinned.