WALKER COUNTY, GA (WRCB) -- As Ridgeland footballers prepare for their first-ever shot at the State Championship, Channel 3 Sports Director Keith Cawley spent some time with coach Mark Mariakas.  He explains how the coach's faith was not a distraction but a strength on the Panthers' road to the Georgia Dome.

"I remember I was on my knees, saying a prayer. I know that," said Mariakis.

It's exactly what anyone who knows the Ridgeland coach would expect him to do before the final play of last week's state semifinal game against Marist.

"When it hit the uprights, the next 15 seconds were a blur," he recalls.

The visitors' game-winning field goal attempt missed by inches -- perhaps some divine intervention -- sending the Panthers to their first state final in school history.

"He said just keep the faith and keep believing in God," said offensive lineman Grady Matthews. "Last week, with that field goal? That was crazy. I just want to thank God for that one."

The Marist miracle is one of many blessings for which Mariakis gives thanks to God. He's a man who wears his faith on his sleeve, a faith that's been tested and strengthened through life's many trials.

"Besides the brain tumor, we lost our first son," he explains. "Then I went through things with my mom and dad. There's those moments that you reflect back on that change your outlook and change your perspective on things."

That perspective made him the man the father, the friend and the coach he is today. And it also opens him up to criticism and complaint, like accusations in an August letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that he was forcing his faith on his team.

"The accusations that were thrown out, I knew were bogus and I knew were just over the top," he said.

Just as Ridgeland put its trust in him nine years ago as its head coach, he put his trust in school officials to know he wasn't abusing his influence.

"It was one of those proud moments to be at Ridgeland High School knowing I'm working for people that think the same way I do and have the same outlook for these young men. They want their best interests and won't be scared by some letter," he said.

His team prays at every practice and game, but Mariakis doesn't lead it. He uses his past experiences for teaching and motivation, but he doesn't preach. His faith fuels the positive outlook with which he views life, which in turn makes him a better coach.

"He's a rock in our system. He's just trying to create young boys into great young men, and that's what he's done. Guys are going to college. Guys are getting education, and that's what it's all about," said Superintendent Damon Raines.

"He's just a great person and a great coach," adds linebacker Daniel Johnson. "He's not just a coach, he's a father-figure. He's always there for me when I need him."

"This team is a family, and he's like the father-figure for our family. He hasn't steered us wrong, and he won't steer us wrong. He's a great man," noted running back Darrell Bridges.

"We're not throwing anything down anyone's throat. We're not forcing anything," explains Mariakis. "We never have and never will force anything on there, but we're not going to change who we are and we're not going to be ashamed of what we stand for, who we stand for and what we believe in. Hopefully it's changed people's lives."