SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Welcome to 15 Teams in 15 Days! This is WSAV’s annual high school football preview series where we do a deep dive on a new team for each of the first 15 days of August. This year, we will ask and answer four standard questions of each team, which are all listed below:
Why are you interesting?
The Calvary Day Cavaliers were among the most dominant teams in the Coastal Empire in 2021, rattling off a 10-0 regular season en route to a region title.
However, a 24-14 home loss to Fellowship Christian in the third round of the Class A-Private playoffs left a bitter taste in the Cavaliers’ mouths going into the offseason.
Most of the players from that team are coming back for another go-around, with two big exceptions. The first is defensive back Juwan Johnson, who graduated from the team and is now at Mercer University. Rising sophomore running back Donovan Johnson also left Calvary to transfer to IMG Academy in Florida. He was a revelation for the Cavs as a freshman, running for 1,336 yards and 10 TDs.
Just about all of the other significant starters return even better in 2022, though, giving the squad hope that they can make it further this year.
“That (playoff loss) definitely puts a chip on all of our shoulders,” said linebacker Troy Ford Jr. “Last year, we were supposed to be that team and we let it get to our heads. This year we’re going to stay humble, keep that chip on our shoulders and play mad. That’s all we can do.”
Who are your dudes?
Rising junior quarterback Jake Merklinger had a busy summer, pulling down scholarship offers from Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn, among others.
Merklinger offered those schools plenty to like on his game tape; he completed more than 70 percent of his passes in 2021. He threw 25 touchdowns compared to just eight interceptions.
On the defensive side of the ball, Terry Simmons returns for his senior year after committing to Duke in the offseason. Multiple coaches have told WSAV that Simmons is one of the best defensive players in Savannah.
Ford Jr. also made a commitment of his own, choosing the UCF Knights in March and taking his official visit over the summer.
“I love that place,” Ford Jr. said. “That’s family. That’s home.”
Linebacker Antonio Butts Jr. is a rangy sideline-to-sideline player that racked up more than 130 tackles for the Cavaliers last year. He also saw some time at running back as Johnson’s backup and should get more carries this year with him gone.
What’s up with your coach?
Mark Stroud is one of less than 20 active head coaches in all of Georgia with more than 200 wins, if that gives you some idea of his pedigree.
He has been a head coach since 1992, when he first broke in with Toombs County. Stroud stayed at Toombs until 2007, when he came to Calvary and has stayed for all but one season.
All that experience has given Stroud a pretty clear idea of what he expects from his team.
“From the way we’re stretching to the way we’re doing our drills, everything we’re doing, we just cannot ever get focused on ourselves,” Stroud said. “It has to be about the team. We were pounding that from day one. All throughout the summer and last week’s practice and this week’s practice, that is the key; coming in with the right mindset.”
When’s the big game?
Everybody in both Calvary Day School and Savannah Christian Prep have that day circled on their calendars.
Both the Cavaliers and Raiders moved up into Class 3A together from A-Private, so that rivalry will be played on a yearly basis for the foreseeable future.
Savannah Christian leads the overall series, 26-17, but the Cavaliers beat the Raiders 21-0 last year to break a four-game losing streak against their biggest yearly foes.
In 17 of the last 26 times these two teams have played, at least one of the teams has been ranked in the top 10 of their class statewide.