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Favorite vs. upstart

High school football players, with their teenage minds, have dreams of ideal scenarios. But so do the coaches.

That's why Wesleyan's football coaches, weeks ago, half-seriously wondered what it would be like to play Emanuel County Institute, the defending Class A state champion. They talked about the challenge of taking on the state's reigning player of the year, Georgia commitment and ECI's star running back, Washaun Ealey.

ECI was widely considered the favorite to make the finals again, but Wesleyan would have to shock the state to make the championship game and meet the defending champ.

The Wolves turned out to be shockers.

Winning 11 straight games, they get their shot today at 2 p.m. against ECI in the Georgia Dome. Prior to this season, no Wesleyan football team had made it past the quarterfinals.

"It's almost eerie how it's worked out because weeks ago we were talking about how good ECI is, what a power running team they have," Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen said. "Just as coaches, not only is this our profession, but we just love the game of high school football. We follow it like coaches do everywhere. We know who's good, who is surging, who is running the ball and who is playing good defense.

"We've been watching ECI and their scores for a long time. We always laugh and wonder what it would be like to give those guys a shot, take them on. In the back of our mind, I don't think we ever thought that would unfold. But I remember vivid conversations, six, eight, 10 weeks ago about how cool it would be to play ECI

"It was like, 'Well to get to ECI, we'd have to make the state finals.' I said, 'Oh yeah, wouldn't that be great? That would be special.' Of course now it's here. That's a little eerie how it's all unfolded."

Coming off a 5-5 season in AA, few expected much of Wesleyan this season, even with dropping down a classification. Pridgen returned just four starters, two on offense and two on defense.

Young players would be needed to fill in immediately. And the Wolves had a small senior class, even by their standards, of nine players.

But all nine have played pivotal roles for a team on the verge of another surprise.

"I'm sure we are the surprise team," Pridgen said. "We were 1-2 on Sept. 13. And on Dec. 13, we're going in to play for a state championship at 12-2. That means we've won 11 games in a row. We've gotten better every week. I'm so proud of our kids and our assistant coaches for making this possible. We're surging. We're playing our best right now."

Their best will be needed today.

ECI sports a 29-game winning streak with Ealey, who scored a state-record 58 touchdowns last season in addition to rushing for almost 3,000 yards. He enters today's game banged up, but is still a dangerous player behind one of the state's biggest offensive lines, led by the massive J.C. Lanier, a Georgia Tech commit.

The Bulldogs also have another top back in Dexter Moody, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound UGA commit who stars on the defense as well.

But when talking about ECI, it always comes back to Ealey, a 5-foot-11, 205-pounder who combines power and speed.

"I thought, having never seen him before, going into game prep that I would see a kid who was a burner and he is," Pridgen said. "He runs very well. But what impresses me about him is he lowers his shoulder and runs between the tackles. He's extremely physical. He's not shy of contact. He wants the ball and knows he can perform with it."

Wesleyan has a few playmakers that have made a difference this season in quarterback Conor Welton and running back Kyle Karempelis. Welton, a junior, was hampered by an injury last season and Karempelis, just a sophomore, is the team's go-to offensive player.

The Wolves also have been steady on defense, with big linemen Andrew Patrick and Josh Parrish forcing teams to run outside when Wesleyan's speed helps.

"I think (Wesleyan's) very deserving to be in the position they're in," ECI head coach Milan Turner said. "They deserve to be playing in the state championship. They're one of the best teams, if not the best, in Class A."

That's still a surprise, even to the Wesleyan players. But they're enjoying the perks of the best football season in school history.

They've already set school marks for wins in a season and wins in a row, along with claiming the school's first region football title.

One more win would be the ideal capper.

"It would be awesome (to win)," Patrick said. "Senior year, what better way to go out? Last year we didn't even make the playoffs and here we are playing for the state championship."

"It hasn't really hit me yet what this season means," Parrish said. "It's been incredible. I'll never forget this. No matter what college I go to, no matter what I do after college, I'll remember these guys and what we've done, what we've accomplished."

What they've accomplished has been surprising. Maybe not to the players and coaches who have put in the work, but to most football fans in the state, the Wolves weren't even on the Class A radar in the preseason.

But here they are on the same field with ECI, with a state championship on the line.

"We feel like we belong here," Pridgen said. "We've earned our way here. This is not a fluke. Our kids have worked their tails off. Our coaches have worked their tails off. We get a lot of support from our community. This is not a fluke. And it won't be a fluke when we show up at the Georgia Dome and play our best."

The Daily Post sports staff takes a position-by-position look at today's Class A state final between Wesleyan and ECI

Quarterbacks

ECI's Michael Robertson has thrown 15 TD passes, but he's only attempted 79 passes. His role in the offense is to run the team's wing-T to perfection, which he usually does. Wesleyan relies more heavily on Conor Welton, whose passing was the key to last week's semifinal win over Lincoln County. Welton has thrown for 1,555 yards and 15 TDs. Advantage: Wesleyan

Running backs

It's not often that Kyle Karempelis is the game's second-most accomplished back. Karempelis has rushed for 1,778 yards and 23 TDs in a record-breaking season, but ECI counters with Washaun Ealey, the state's reigning player of the year. Ealey, a UGA commit, rushed for a state-record 58 TDs and nearly 3,000 yards last season. He has 41 total TDs and 2,698 rushing yards this season. He also shares the backfield with Dexter Moody, a fellow UGA commit. Advantage: ECI

Receivers

ECI's most dangerous receivers are Ealey and Moody out of the backfield, and the Bulldogs don't ask much of their wideouts. Meanwhile, 13 different Wesleyan players have caught passes this season. Karempelis has a team-best 31 out of the backfield, but Anderson Porter, Lee Ellis, Brent Pugh and Bobby Worthington all have 20 or more catches. Advantage: Wesleyan

Offensive line

Wesleyan's most recruited players are huge offensive linemen Josh Parrish and Andrew Patrick, two players that have been major keys for a record-breaking offense. But ECI has four linemen bigger than the 305-pound Parrish, led by 6-3, 325-pound guard J.C. Lanier, a Georgia Tech commit. That group allows ECI to do what it does best - run the football. Advantage: ECI

Defensive line

Lincoln County saw how other teams struggle to run up the middle on Wesleyan, deciding not to even explore inside runs last week. Parrish and Patrick do a great job plugging up the middle, while ends Cole Watson and Brady Donovan have combined for 23 tackles for losses. Lanier also does a nice job of holding down the middle for the ECI defense, while Moody is a playmaker at defensive end. Advantage: Wesleyan

Linebackers

Mark Flott, ECI's top tackler, is a very active player and the best of his team's two linebackers. Bobby Fulton is Wesleyan's top tackler with 83 and he pairs with two other strong players in Carter Garrison (11 tackles for losses) and Merritt Hall, the coaches' Region 8-A defensive player of the year selection. Advantage: Even

Secondary

The Wolves' secondary came up with big interceptions last week in a win over Lincoln County, showing that the unit is adept at defending the pass. The defensive backs also are sure tacklers, led by Devin Stanton's 72 stops. ECI's best defensive back is Remond Sanford, who has a team-high six interceptions. Advantage: Wesleyan

Special teams

Wesleyan's kickoff and punt teams have shown the ability to break long returns, but that's matched by an athletic group of ECI players. The Wolves' advantage is in the kicking game, where sophomore Spencer Short (7 of 8 field goals) and junior Will Farrell (35.9 punting average) have been solid. Advantage: Wesleyan

Intangibles

ECI has the edge in playoff and Georgia Dome experience, having won the state championship a year ago. But the Bulldogs also have the pressure of repeating. Wesleyan must play in the cavernous Georgia Dome for the first time, but the Wolves do so very hungry for their first state football championship to cap a storybook season. Advantage: Even

SideBar: WESLEYAN VS. ECI

Who: Wesleyan Wolves (8-A) vs. Emanuel County Institute Bulldogs (3-A)

When: Today, 2 p.m.

Where: Georgia Dome

TV: GPB

Coaches: Franklin Pridgen, Wesleyan; Milan Turner, ECI

Records: Wesleyan 12-2; ECI 14-0

Last week: Wesleyan beat Lincoln County 20-12; ECI beat Wilkinson County 15-7

Prediction: ECI 20-14

Series history: First meeting