On paper, Christian Heritage School's Friday night home game against North Cobb Christian to decide the Region 7-A Private title couldn't have been much more evenly matched.
The two teams had identical records, and the lone loss for each team coming into the game came at the hands of the same Fellowship Christian team.
Christian Heritage (9-1, 4-0 Region 7-A Private) got a big lead and finished strong to win 28-13 over North Cobb Christian (8-2, 3-1 Region 7-A Private) and earn their spot as the region's champion, the first such championship in the school's nine-season history.
"These guys are such a special group and they know how to win. They deserve a moment like this," Christian Heritage head coach Jay Poag said as players, students, coaches and families celebrated on the field after the game. "It's a huge win for our school. It just doesn't get any better than this."
On the field, the teams didn't look as evenly matched in the first half.
The Lions put together a great start on both sides of the ball, only allowing North Cobb Christian one first down on seven offensive drives in the half.
Making things worse for North Cobb was the loss of starting running back Caleb Cannon, who left with an apparent leg injury on the lone first down-gaining play and didn't return.
While the Christian Heritage defense stymied the Eagles, the Lion offense was clicking, too.
Quarterback Christian Thomas threw three touchdown passes in the opening half -- a 46-yard strike to Evan Lester and 23-yarders to Gage Leonard and Solomon Locke. That left the Lions with a 21-0 lead on the scoreboard and a 195 to 40 advantage in total yards at the break.
"For our classification, I think we're as good as anybody on defense," Poag said. "We expected to come in and shut these guys down."
In the third quarter, momentum began to flip toward the Eagles.
North Cobb quarterback Anson Mathis bulldozed through the pile for a one-yard touchdown to get the Eagles on the board, then an interception of Thomas set up a second score when Mathis found Isaiah Williams for an 80-yard catch-and-run score.
Christian Heritage blocked the ensuing extra point to make the score 21-13.
The third quarter may have gone North Cobb Christian's way, but the Lions regained some of that first-half form in the fourth.
"We've talked about how we're going to respond when we get punched in the nose," Poag said. "I took them aside and said to take a deep breath and keep playing. That's what they did."
The Lions forced an Eagles three-and-out, then marched on a nine-play championship drive.
Thomas found Tucker Jordan near the sideline for 23 yards and a third-down conversion, then took it himself for 24 yards on the ground down to the Eagle six the next time Christian Heritage faced third down.
"He's a winner," Poag said of Thomas. "That scramble up the middle may have been the play of the game."
Thomas finished with 133 yards passing and 55 rushing.
Gage Leonard broke a tackle and stretched the ball just into the end zone on the next play to put it nearly out of reach at 28-13 with just 4:38 left.
"I was excited," Leonard said. "I knew then we just needed one more stop and we had it."
Leonard had 77 rushing yards and the touchdown to go along with his first-half scoring reception.
North Cobb Christian reached the Lions' side of the field on a desperate final drive, but turned the ball over on downs with just 40 seconds left.
Christian Heritage opens the Class A Private playoffs Friday, when they host Alpharetta's King's Ridge Christian, the fourth seed out of Region 6-A Private, at 7:30 p.m.
"We're just going to keep going and taking it one game at a time, hopefully all the way to the state championship," Leonard said.