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Coach of the year: Franklin Pridgen
Coach led Wolves to first state title

NORCROSS - Conventional wisdom held that Wesleyan's football team would benefit this season from the school being moved down to Class A in the Georgia High School Association's most recent reclassification.

Still, with just two starters returning from last year on both offense and defense, coach Franklin Pridgen wanted to keep the team's goals fairly modest.

"We aren't one of those teams who says, 'Our goal every year is to win a state championship,'" Pridgen said. "Our goal was to compete for a region (8-A) championship."

To the outside observer, even that goal looked in jeopardy after the Wolves began the season 1-2. But a funny thing happened on the way to what looked like a tough season.

With the help of an experienced staff of assistants and his nine-member senior class, Pridgen kept his team focused on its original goal.

And the Wolves rewarded that work not by meeting it, but exceeding it in ways nobody imagined, reeling off 12 straight wins to not only take Wesleyan's first region championship, but also the school's first-ever state title in football.

For his steady leadership that led to unprecedented heights for his team, he is the Daily Post's Coach of the Year for 2008.

Despite its humble beginnings, with few returning starters and a slow start, Pridgen said things were never as bad as they seemed.

"We have great kids and great coaches, and we had a plan," Pridgen said. "We implemented the plan and the kids executed it. ... We had a lot of early-season issues and we thought the key to our success would be how quickly we overcame those issues and how quickly our young kids developed.

"We scheduled aggressively in the first four games against teams we thought would challenge us. I thought that would be the fastest way for our kids to develop. But many of the new starters were experienced football players. They just didn't start on that particular side of the ball. So, they weren't new to football."

Neither were his assistant coaches, which got two important additions over the offseason with the return of former Wesleyan head coach Will Jackson, plus former Collins Hill head coach Larry Sherrill coming in to join an already solid coaching staff.

"They made an unbelievable impact," Pridgen said. "Their wisdom and experience were invaluable. Not only did they do a great deal of work with us on the practice field and game planning, but to watch game film with those guys and see what they see and listen to what they take from breaking down an opponent - they really coached our coaches. They not only coached the kids, they coached me. This would not have been possible without them."

Of course, it also wouldn't have been possible without the players - especially the seniors in whom Pridgen placed a lot of faith and whom he challenged to fulfill a strong leadership role.

"From day one, he told us this was our team - we'll make of it what we put into it," said senior offensive and defensive lineman Josh Parrish said of Pridgen. "He really let us deal with the team how we thought we should. But then, he backed us up the whole time. We weren't out there alone to fend for ourselves."

Indeed, led by seniors like Parrish, Bobby Fulton, Andrew Patrick, JJ Russell and Lee Ellis, plus dynamic underclassmen like Kyle Karempelis, Conor Welton and Merritt Hall, the Wolves slowly began to gain confidence after close losses to playoff-bound teams Holy Innocents' and Darlington left them at 1-2.

Milestones began to roll up - a strong road win at Social Circle set the stage for even bigger road wins over traditional Class A powers Commerce and Athens Academy, the latter of which paved the way for the first football region championship in school history.

But even after a pair of playoff wins - including avenging one of the earlier losses against Holy Innocents' - it really wasn't until Wesleyan's state quarterfinal game before Pridgen began to entertain thoughts that his team could be destined for more.

"When I (first) thought we had a chance to win a state championship was probably on the way back from Miller County (after a 17-7 victory)," Pridgen said. "We took a long road trip after a holiday against a team with a ton of speed at their place and won that game. We just kind of threw caution to the wind and let's take what comes."

What came was a semifinal matchup against a Lincoln County program which had won 11 state titles in Larry Campbell's legendary tenure as coach.

Even after a 20-12 win at Henderson Stadium that propelled them to their first championship game appearance, the Wolves still had their doubters, especially with defending state champion Emanuel County Institute - and high-profile seniors Washaun Ealey and J.C. Lanier - standing in the way.

Once again, Wesleyan silenced its skeptics with a convincing 33-21 victory at the Georgia Dome to make school history.

And even though several individual players - like Karempelis, Welton, Parrish and Patrick on offense and Fulton on defense - made a name for themselves on the season and especially in the finals, the Wolves' were still relative no-names on the state level.

That is why their victory was not only shocking to most of the state but to everyone except Pridgen and his staff, making it more satisfying to them, too.

"We gained a lot of confidence by beating a tremendous program like Lincoln County in the semis," Pridgen said. "Then, we knew we had a great plan and actually went down to the Georgia Dome with all the respect in the world for ECI, but we went down expecting to win the ball game.

"The best thing about this squad is the whole was greater than the sum of our parts. I don't know that we have a ton of unbelievable athletes, but we've got lots of good football players. Together, we were the best team I've ever been a part of."