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Wesleyan stuns state's No. 1 team for title

ATLANTA - Saturday's Class A state football championship game was one that truly defied most logic and statistics and the expectations of most fans around the state.

Emanuel County Institute came in as defending champion, the No. 1 state ranking and on a 29-game winning streak. The Bulldogs outgained unranked Wesleyan by 55 yards and picked up five more first downs.

But the Wolves, making their first-ever appearance in a state title game, made sure the favorites left with a loss.

Kyle Karempelis had 181 yards of total offense, scored three touchdowns and blocked a punt, while Bobby Fulton and Carter Garrison combined for 35 tackles to lead a strong defensive effort as Wesleyan picked up its first football state title with a 33-21 upset victory Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

"Our kids didn't just come down here for the experience," Wesleyan coach Franklin Pridgen said after this team finished the season at 13-2. "They came down here to win a championship. That was our focus. We weren't just happy to be here.

"We intended to win, and the idea we were able to do so over an unbelievable football team shocked a lot of people, and on some level, maybe it does me, too. But I'm not surprised because I know how hard these coaches and players work."

That hard work paid off in a balanced offensive effort, with Karempelis and the running game complemented by another strong outing from quarterback Conor Welton, who completed 12 of 16 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.

The defense also did its part. While ECI (14-1) put up some impressive-looking numbers, the Wolves' defense actually did a fine job of bottling up the Bulldogs' running game, holding Georgia-bound senior Washaun Ealey (21 carries, 98 yards, 3 TDs) under 100 yards, and allowed few big plays.

It didn't take long for the Wesleyan offense to get cranked up on its first possession.

It took the Wolves just seven plays and 3:26 to go 71 yards, mostly on the arm of Welton, who was 5-for-5 for 68 of those yards on the drive, including the last 23 to Anderson Porter for a touchdown that put Wesleyan up 7-0 with 6:20 left in the opening period.

While the Wesleyan defense had stopped ECI on downs on the game's first possession, the Bulldogs had considerably better fortunes on fourth down on their next drive.

ECI converted on three separate fourth-down situations on what became a 19-play, 60-yard drive that drained 8:29 off the clock.

Ealey capped the drive by diving in from 2 yards out to pull ECI even at 7-7 just 1:47 into the second quarter.

"That drive they had - it was hard," said Fulton, who finished with a game-high 22 tackles. "We weren't used to playing in a dome in the winter. The air's a lot thinner and hotter than you think. But the offense really helped us out. They pumped us up and gave us time to breathe. We adjusted to (ECI's) power and their speed."

Indeed, it only took Wesleyan a 36-yard kickoff return by Porter, two plays and 1:02 to answer.

This time, with the passing game having loosened up the middle of the ECI defense, Karempelis took advantage and broke free up the middle and dashed 41 yards for a score, putting the Wolves back in front 14-7 with 9:11 left in the first half.

"It really spread them out," said Karempelis, who ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries and added four catches for 46 yards and a score. "And the line did a great job and opened up that hole for me."

Wesleyan had a chance to add to its lead when Karempelis blocked an ECI punt, setting up the Wolves at the Bulldogs' 34-yard line.

But a sack on third-and-2 forced Wesleyan into a 37-yard field goal attempt and Spencer Short's kick clanked off the left upright, keeping the lead at seven points heading into intermission.

ECI threatened to tie the game again after holding Wesleyan three-and-out coming out of halftime and then moving into Wolves territory with its first two offensive plays of the third quarter.

But Merritt Hall got to Bulldogs quarterback Michael Robertson when he dropped back to pass and knocked the ball loose. Carter Garrison scooped it up and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown that extended Wesleyan's lead to 20-7 with 8:48 left in the period.

"We've practiced that drill for months," said Garrison, who had 13 tackles on the day. "Just strip it out of the quarterback's hands, and (Hall) set me up perfectly. The ball was right there and I just took it.

"Everybody (on the sideline) was just loving it. We kind of felt like we had the game under control at that point."

If it wasn't already, Wesleyan took total control of the game after Lee Ellis recovered another ECI fumble just more than two and half minutes later at the Wolves' 44.

Four plays later, Karempelis found another hole and dashed 27 yards for another touchdown, stretching the lead to 26-7 with 4:37 left in the quarter.

ECI tried to come back when Ealey capped a 13-play, 73-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown and two-point conversion on the first play of the fourth quarter to pull the Bulldogs to 26-15 with 11:56 to play. But Wesleyan had an answer.

The Wolves recovered an onside kick and drove 53 yards in seven plays and found the end zone again on Welton's 7-yard swing pass to Karempelis to push the lead back to three scores at 33-15 with 7:38 left and essentially put the game away.

"It's just awesome," Fulton said. "This was our goal from the beginning of the season. ... It's still hard, but we're still out there working hard every day, practicing and training. It's just an awesome experience."