Following Augusta Christian's 24-18 win over Stratford Academy in last Friday's Georgia Independent Schools Association Class AAA state playoff quarterfinals, Lions coach Steve Price spoke to the mass of players and fans huddled in celebration at Pride Valley.
Price talked of the pride he had in his team. He talked of the religious faith that buoyed a forth-quarter comeback which led to the overtime win and the school's first trip to the Georgia Independent Schools Association (GISA) semifinals, where tonight at 8 Augusta Christian will play host to Macon's Mt. de Sales. That battle will determine which team advances to the state championship game on Dec. 4 at the winner of today's Tattnall Square-Westfield semifinal.
But mainly Price talked about his players. About the quarterback who was too short; about the tailback who was too small; and about the receiver who was too skinny.
Similar comments had been bounced around by AC's opponents for the past 20 years, as the Lions were perceived as football whipping boys, the kind of team you wanted to schedule for homecoming. This time, however, the words were meant to honor a squad that has reached new gridiron heights in 1998.
"I didn't say those things to put them down," Price said of his references to quarterback Nathan Duffie (too short), tailback Brandon Colberg (too small) and split end Brett Newton (too skinny)." No one believed in them but themselves. Hard work and dedication has turned them into great football players. Any team in the city would love to have them, but four years ago people thought they wouldn't turn out to be anything."
Since the school began its football program in 1977, Augusta Christian had never won more than six games in a season. This year, the Lions are 10-2 and riding a seven-game win streak. AC has advanced to the state playoffs the past three years, but had only won once in postseason.
Then there's the all-time Region 4-AAA record of 2-20. Augusta Christian eclipsed that total this season, going 3-0 to capture the first region title in school history.
The senior trio of Duffie, Colberg and Newton is a big part of the Lions' resurgence. Duffie is the school record holder in career touchdown passes (29), and the numbers from his all-state junior season (61-for-135 passing for 966 yards with 12 TDs) have improved to 67-of-120 for 925 yards and 15 TDs this season. Colberg is AC's career rushing leader with 2,304 yards (including 1,136 in '98), and Newton needs 6 receiving yards to top the career mark of 976 held by Greg Williams.
Augusta Christian is far from a three-man team, though. Senior linebacker Robbie Poole anchors the defensive side; he tallied a sack last week against Stratford to tie AC's all-time total of 13. But he saved his best for overtime, when he recorded a game-winning interception. Another senior, Bryan Wilson, leads the offensive line.
When looking at the role senior leadership has played in AC's run toward a state title, it would be easy to think the Lions are a one-year wonder. But Price says this year's record-breaking season is just a start.
"It's always been our goal to build for the future, to not sacrifice the permanent for the immediate," Price said. "Our junior class has a lot of hard workers and natural leaders, and our freshman class is the best we've ever had. We also have 17 eighth graders that are on the junior varsity team. We feel good about where we are."
And with a win over Mt. de Sales tonight, Price and his players would feel good about where they're going: the GISA Class AAA state final.