Wesleyan quarterback Will Anderson (7) rushes the ball while being pursued by Landmark defensive back Cole Higbie (17) and inside linebacker William Higbie during Friday's game.
Wesleyan running back Erik Gossett (2), right, celebrates his second quarter touchdown pass reception with teammate outside linebacker Avery Carpenter (74) during Friday's game against Landmark.
Wesleyan running back Eric Sunderman (3) rushes the ball with blocking help from teammate Charles Mack (18) during the first quarter against Landmark Friday evening.
Wesleyan wide receiver Eric Sunderman (3) falls hard to the turf while covered by Landmark defensive back Donald Payne (1) during the second quarter of Friday's game.
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NORCROSS -- Wesleyan has been used to playing into late November or early December. But there will be no state playoff run for the Wolves this season.
Coach Franklin Pridgen tried to make sure, though, that his disappointed players didn't let Friday night's loss to Landmark Christian ruin the season or break their spirit.
"You're not a failure. You are not a disappointment," he loudly told his players as they huddled near midfield after the 16-7 loss to the War Eagles in a Region 5-A play-in game at chilly Henderson Stadium. "You are a courageous hard-working team of men. I'm as proud of you as any team I've had."
After winning the state title in 2008, the Wolves reached the state quarterfinals in 2009 and the semifinals last season. This team, however, wasn't as experienced, as big or as talented as those three teams.
That showed against Landmark, which controlled the line of scrimmage and the game despite outsized Wesleyan never giving in.
"They were bigger and stronger," Pridgen said. "But our hearts are just as big."
Landmark (8-2) took the lead for good just before halftime and held on as Wesleyan (7-3) was unable to mount much offense in the second half.
"I feel for our seniors. I know how much they are hurting right now," Pridgen said. "But we just lost to a better team."
Wesleyan finished second in the North Division of Region 5-A and Landmark third in the South. But the War Eagles had a big advantage in size and they put it to use.
Although Wesleyan would take a one-point lead in the second quarter, the tone was set on the opening drive. The Wolves were unable to stop the Landmark trap and the War Eagles drove the ball the length of the field.
Staying strictly on the ground, Landmark marched 85 yards after the opening kickoff to take the lead. Chase McFarlin got the touchdown on a 6-yard run with 7:15 left in the first quarter.
After Eric Sunderman just missed a 52-yard field goal for Wesleyan in the first quarter, the Wolves went on top with 7:28 left before halftime. Will Anderson hit a wide-open Eric Gossett on a 54-yard pass play and Sunderman's extra point made it 7-6.
The lead didn't last until halftime, though.
After Jamie Stark recovered a fumble at the Wesleyan 22-yard line, the Wolves gave the ball back on a fumble of their own after crossing midfield and the War Eagles capitalized.
Having thrown just one pass previously, Landmark went deep and the War Eagles had the ball at the Wesleyan 5-yard line on Cantrell Frazier's pass with less than a minute remaining before halftime. Donald Payne barged in from 2 yards out with 11.8 seconds left and the lead was 13-7 after Landmark kicker Garrison Adams made up for an earlier miss following a high snap.
Wesleyan got the ball to start the second half and made two first downs while advancing into Landmark territory. But Anderson's long pass into the end zone was intercepted by Payne and the War Eagles drove down the field for the only points after halftime.
Adams was good on a 30-yard field with 42 seconds left in the third quarter and that left Wesleyan needing two scores. The Wolves couldn't manage one.
Anderson, a sophomore who had been completing 61 percent of his passes, was 7 of 12 for 126 yards and the TD in the first half. But he was 7 of 19 for just 33 yards after intermission and had the interception.
Meanwhile, the Wolves could do little on the ground after Zander Yost's opening carry for 21 yards. They finished with 43 net yards on 12 attempts.
Wesleyan was 37-5 over the previous three seasons, establishing a lofty standard that will always be very hard to match.
"This was a young team," Pridgen said. "We'll get stronger and come back next season ready to go."