ATHENS - They say you always remember your first, a statement that will ring true for Wesleyan.
With its 17-7 win over Athens Academy on Friday night, Wesleyan captured its first region title in football, capturing the Region 8-A crown on the same field that Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen began his coaching career.
"I'm just reflecting on the hard work that got us here," said Pridgen, who started as an assistant at the Athens private school in 1992. "This is just an incredible moment because it is very difficult for people to understand how much time and effort these players and coaches have put in. They deserve everything they got."
With the game tied 7-7 late in the third, the Wesleyan defense jumped to life and forced four turnovers in the final 15 minutes of the game. Two of those resulted in scores (one field goal and one touchdown), eventually turning that momentum into a region crown.
Wesleyan carried a 7-0 lead into the locker room at the half but Athens Academy, ranked No. 3 in Class A and winners of seven straight, answered early in the third when quarterback Will Daniel hit McKay Matthews on a 46-yard touchdown pass to knot things up at 7-7.
The score swung the momentum into the favor of the Spartans but the Wesleyan defense answered the next time it hit the field when Lee Ellis picked off a Daniel pass.
That possession led to a 43-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter from freshman Eric Sunderman, giving the Wolves (7-2, 5-0) a 10-7 lead.
"Early in the season, we had a game against Holy Innocents' when we were up 6-0 but we lost that game in the second half," Ellis said. "We knew we could not let that happen again."
Ellis stepped up again later in the quarter when the Wolves once again forced a Spartan turnover, this time a fumble recovery by Merritt Hall on the Spartan 19.
The first play of that drive, Wesleyan quarterback Conor Welton threw a fade pattern in the left side of the end zone with Ellis making a remarkable one-handed catch as he dove around a Spartan defender.
"It was mostly luck but it was also an incredible throw by Conor," Ellis said. "It was right where it needed to be and it worked out."
With a 10-point deficit and 9:29 to play, Athens Academy (7-1, 3-1) came right back with two strong drives but the Wesleyan defense once again stepped up.
The first of those two drives was halted when Brady Donovan, who also had two sacks, forced a fumble that was recovered by Ellis and the latter drive ended at the Wesleyan goal line when Devin Stanton picked off a tipped Daniel pass.
"I thought both teams played well and Pridgen did a good job of getting his team ready," Athens Academy head coach Michael Gunn said. "We knew they had a good defense and we knew we would have a hard time moving the ball on them."
Wesleyan sophomore Kyle Karempelis also delivered a strong game, gaining 160 yards on 21 carries, including a 27-yard TD run in the second quarter to put Wesleyan up 7-0. Welton also finished strong with 108 yards and one TD on 9 of 15 attempts.
Wesleyan concludes its regular season at home next week against Athens Christian.
Wesleyan 17, Athens Academy 7
Wesleyan: Kyle Karempelis 27 run (Spencer Short kick) 7:42
Athens: McKay Matthews 46 pass from Will Daniel (Chandler Gunn kick) 9:46
Wesleyan: Eric Sunderman 43 FG, 11:56
Wesleyan: Lee Ellis 19 pass from Conor Welton (Short kick) 9:29