The Unity Christian Lions were finally able to celebrate their championship football season with a trophy in hand.
On Monday, the football team was honored as part of Unity Christian School’s Fall Sports Banquet for winning the 2020 Georgia Association of Private and Parochial Schools Class AA State Championship last month. The Lions were scheduled to play Cherokee Christian School in the championship Nov. 27, but Cherokee Christian forfeited the game earlier in the week due to COVID, thus solidifying Unity’s undefeated, and now championship, season.
“It was awesome to have the trophy in the building, to hoist it up,” Lions head coach Nick Jones said in a phone interview. “It’s just a recognition of all the hard work that our guys have put into this year and to be able to finally have that moment where we could celebrate it and honor them at the same time was just a tremendous, tremendous blessing.”
Unity Christian’s final time on the football field this season was the GAPPS Class AA semifinal game one week earlier, when the Lions bested Peachtree Academy 42-16, the same team that bounced Unity from the semifinal 26-0 one year earlier. Jones referred to the 2020 playoff edition of Peachtree vs. Unity as a “redemption game.”
“That redemption game for us was our best game of the season,” Jones said.
Senior quarterback Drew King, who went 29-2 as a starter, described the feeling of capturing a state title in his final year as a Lion.
“This year, to come out having high expectations and setting the bar high ... was going 10-0, playoffs and ultimately state championship, obviously taking one game at a time,” King said. “Like Coach Jones said, (Peachtree) was our redemption game. That was really the best experience of this year. Just winning that game was a statement win. I feel like that’s a good game to go out on at Unity.”
There were periods when the 2020 football season was in doubt. Although the road had its potholes, it was still navigable and Unity suited up for nine games in all.
“The end of last year, it really did fuel the fire coming into this year,” King said. “With the situation we’re in with COVID and the pandemic ..., we didn’t know how many games we were going to get. It was really just getting our player’s minds right, including myself, to focus on that week and play your best because we don’t know. It may be our last.”
King was joined by teammates Caleb Thompson and Bailey Mohler, both of whom are juniors this year.
“As Drew said, it was heartbreaking last year making it all the way 10-0 and then losing to Peachtree 26-0,” Mohler said. “This whole summer, we kept in our heads 26-0. This summer, everybody pushed hard and focused in the weight room and got a lot stronger and better. We felt like we had the right team for the championship.”
“That (Peachtree) loss really pushed us to get better and better for the next season,” Thompson said. “Our goal was to go out, get the state championship, and to get to the state championship, we would have to go through Peachtree again.”
Now with his high school career complete, King said he’s not quite sure what’s next, but said he will never forget his time with the program.
“My experience at Unity overall has been amazing,” King said. “The reason I’m 29-2 is because of my teammates and how amazing they are and the support they give each other and the leadership they show on the team ultimately pushes me to do better for them. Football is a team sport and without the camaraderie and brotherhood that takes place on the football field, you can’t be successful.”
As Mohler and Thompson will be seniors next year, they both know defending a championship will be a tough road ahead.
“Going into next year, we still have to focus in the weight room ... and push hard during the summer,” Mohler said. “We’ve got to work hard ... get stronger, get mentally ready, get everybody healthy and ready for next year.”
“This offseason is all about getting bigger, stronger and faster,” Thompson said. “Getting in the gym, eating right. Get mentally focused all year and be ready to lead our team next year for another championship.”
All four shared their defining moments of the 2020 season.
For Thompson, King and Mohler, their answers were similar.
“It’s going to have to be when we beat Peachtree (Academy),” Thompson said. “We proved to everyone who we really are and how we were focused on winning that championship.”
“The Peachtree game was close in the first quarter,” King said. “Going into the second quarter, we came out fired up in the hopes to attack first and score first. I think it was one of our first drives of the second and we scored, we scored big on a big play. I remember feeling like ‘Alright, let’s roll. Let’s do our thing.’”
“Like I said, 26-0 was constantly being pushed into our minds and we were constantly reminded of that,” Mohler said. “They were back-to-back state champs, so we kind of wanted to strip that away from them and claim it for ourselves. It was a good game to finish on.”
Jones chose his defining moment from the first time Peachtree Academy and Unity Christian met this season, back on Sept. 11 in Covington. It was the first meeting since Peachtree’s 26-0 triumph in Rome the previous November.
“Our last memory of them was 26-0 and we’re going into a game where our seniors hadn’t played yet. Our team hadn’t gelled yet,” Jones said. “We were first-and-goal at the 10 or the 9 (yard line) and then three penalties and we find ourselves second-and-35 and you can either fold there or change gears. We ended up punting and our next drive after that, we wound up throwing a long drive and going down and scoring. By the end of that game, our guys grew up, they came together as a team and ... we reclaimed from them what we thought was ours. That catapulted our season. That third game is really what launched us.”