Thompson falls in 7A title game

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

AUBURN – The Thompson Warriors came into the 2018 state championship game looking to win the second title in school history after earning a trip to the game for the first time since 1982, and while the Warriors fell short, this team won’t be remembered for the outcome.

Despite a 52-7 loss to Central-Phenix City in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium during the AHSAA Class 7A State Championship game on Wednesday, Dec. 5, the Warriors found themselves in the premier game for the first time in 36 years, and are just the second team in the school’s history to make it that far–something that will be remembered for a long time to come.

“This was our first freshman to senior class,” head coach Mark Freeman said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. We’ve got some of the toughest kids and I can’t say enough about our kids and the way they battled this entire season.”

From the sendoff for the team on Tuesday morning, to the Warrior Walk outside of Jordan-Hare Stadium just an hour-and-a-half before the start of the game, and the warmups inside the SEC Stadium, it was all special and something this team will never forget, but it was the previous 12 games that defined the 2018 Thompson football team.

Whether it be the 11-1 record through those first 12 games, the comeback win against Vestavia Hills, the 28-point deficit and comeback against Hewitt-Trussville or the semifinal win against the Hoover Buccaneers, there were several special moments along the way.

But the real thing that defines this team, and specifically the senior class is the 24-3 record over the last two years after being 0-10 just five seasons ago, as well as the touchdown scored in the final 5 minutes of the state championship game after falling behind 52-0 to avoid a shutout.

“Our community… it’s unreal,” Freeman said. “What has happened here in four years. It’s terrible right now but when you look back at the things that are going to come from this bunch of guys, this group of seniors, I’m so happy for what that means and the standard they have set for our program and our city.”

That’s something senior running back Shadrick Byrd reiterated after his final game as well.

“It felt great to give this city back what they’ve missed out on for 36 years,” Byrd said. “We love them and appreciate them and can’t thank them enough for the support despite the outcome.”

The game itself didn’t go the way the Warriors wanted it to with Central taking control early on both sides of the ball thanks to a strong pass rush defensively and a dominant duo of Amontae Spivey and Peter Parrish offensively.

Those two helped the Red Devils score two early touchdowns in the first quarter for a 14-0 lead before adding a third with 2:09 left in the second quarter to take a 21-0 advantage.

“It spiraled, and it spiraled early, but we own what we do,” Freeman said after the game.

Thompson wasn’t in new territory after trailing other games by large margins during the season, and came out the next drive ready to roll.

The Warriors, who also were set to get the ball to start the second half, went on a long drive just before the half, but the kryptonite of the first half–Central’s defensive line–struck again.

Taulia Tagovailoa took a snap with first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, but was then sacked for the fourth time in the half to make it second-and-goal from the 18-yard line. Thompson completed a pass on the next play with 13 seconds left, but the time ran off the clock as the receiver couldn’t make it out of bounds.

That marked the fourth sack of the first half, which stalled every offensive drive for the Warriors to keep them behind 21-0 at the break.

“We felt like our pass rush they couldn’t handle,” Central head coach Jamey DuBose said. “We felt like our guys could move the line and get after him tonight and they did.”

Thompson still had the ball first coming out of the locker room, but on the first possession of the second half, Tagovailoa threw an interception on a deep pass attempt.

Central only tacked on a field goal, but all of the momentum was in Central’s favor and the Red Devils knew it.

They went on to score four more touchdowns in the half as an injured Tagovailoa and junior Sawyer Pate traded taking snaps at quarterback before Pate eventually became the guy near the end of the third quarter.

The Warriors fell behind 52-0 but Thompson was able to stave off the shutout with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Pate to J.B. Mitchell with 3:58 remaining to complete the games scoring at 52-7.

Byrd ended up leading Thompson’s offense with 161 yards rushing on 24 carries, while adding 12 receiving yards. An injured Tagovailoa ended his final game for Thompson going 7-of-11 for 44 yards with an interception.

“Being here wasn’t the goal,” Freeman said. “We wanted to come and win the game. But I could not be more proud of our players and coaches. I could be more happy and excited, but what we have accomplished this year, I can’t be any prouder of these guys.”

A team that was 0-10 just a few years ago and 5-5 the two years after that, went on to make history in 2018, and it’s a team that won’t be forgotten for that accomplishment any time soon.

Because of that hard work the coaching staff and players had put into turning the program around, it led to an emotional scene between Freeman and three of his senior players after the game.

Freeman complimented Byrd, Tagovailoa and Amari Kight for their dedication and fight to play through anything for this team, and even called Tagovailoa the toughest kid he’s ever coached with Byrd nodding his head in agreement. Tagovailoa then went on to sum up why Freeman has made this program so successful in such a short period of time.

“When I first got here, I met Freeman and he was the nicest guy I had ever met,” Tagovailoa said with tears in his eyes. “When it came to coaching, it was the complete opposite. That was the same way my dad did things. It’s business when it comes to work. Coach Freeman became my second father these last two years.”

Freeman, choking up, then gave his senior quarterback a hug, told him he loved him and repeated that with both Byrd and Kight after kind words with tears flowing all around.

This 2018 Thompson team, while it was about winning and disappointed in coming up short of its goal, was able to make history because of that sentiment.