Thompson advances to semifinals for 3rd straight year, faces Hoover again

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

ALABASTER – For the third consecutive year, the Thompson Warriors are headed to the semifinals of the Class 7A playoffs after taking down Florence 38-31 in the second round in front of the home crowd inside Warriors Stadium on Friday, Nov. 15. 

A team that was 0-10 a mere five years ago, the Warriors got an interception from Ja’Vone Williams with less than a minute left in the game and the Falcons on the Thompson side of the field to seal the victory and send the sideline into a frenzied celebration.

“I really can’t be more proud of them,” head coach Mark Freeman said. “The coaches have done a great job with the kids and the kids have just endured. This time of the year, any win is a good win. I’m happy for the kids and I’m happy for the community.”

With the win, Thompson set up a rematch with the Hoover Buccaneers at Warrior Stadium in the semifinals of the playoffs on Friday, Nov. 22, but doing so didn’t come with ease after struggles with penalties and getting off the field on third downs.

Early in the game, off a turnover on downs at midfield from Thompson and an interception thrown from Florence to Williams, the Warriors got the scoring started behind an easy 89-yard nine-play drive that saw Jarrett Crockett reel off runs of 7, 10 and 8 yards, while Mike Pettway and Ryan Peppins also made several great catches.

Crockett capped the drive off with a 3-yard touchdown run that put Thompson in front 7-0 with 3:57 left in the opening quarter.

Following a three-and-out from the defense, the Warriors, who looked warmed up now, came right back and made the ensuing drive look easy. Sawyer Pate hit J.B. Mitchell over the middle of the field for a 37-yard pass on the second play of the drive, before then finding Tre Roberson for a 27-yard touchdown one play later. After just three plays and 34 seconds, the Warriors had made it 14-0.

But for the rest of the half, Thompson struggled with penalties and getting off the field on third downs.

Florence answered with a 40-yard field goal following two third down conversions on the ensuing drive. And then, after a hold on the kickoff and false start on the first play of Thompson’s next drive backed the Warriors up inside the 15-yard line, Florence was able to bring pressure around the right end and hit Pate on his blind side forcing a fumble. The Falcons scooped it up at the 5-yard line and fell into the end zone for a touchdown to all of a sudden make it a 14-10 game with 8:33 left in the half.

Then, on the kickoff, the Falcons attempted an onside kick and it paid off. Thompson seem confused and watched the ball instead of jumping on it, which allowed Florence to recover.

Having shifted the momentum, Florence looked to be in good shape to go down and score again, but Thompson defense stepped up and forced a turnover on downs.

Now that the offense had finally gotten the ball back, the Warriors made sure to capitalize despite losing their star senior quarterback for a play. After Pate came out for a play because of an equipment problem, sophomore Conner Harrell Peppins stepped in and the Warriors weren’t conservative.

On a quick pass to the left sideline, Peppins hit Pettway, who did the rest of the work by cutting back up the sideline for a 67-yard touchdown that put the Warriors on top 21-10 with 5:36 to play in the quarter.

“We had a play call that we liked, and Conner is at practice every day and knows exactly what to do,” Freeman said. “He came through and was 1-for-1 with a touchdown because of it. He was prepared when he needed to go.”

But third downs then bit the Warriors again.

On the ensuing drive, Florence converted three consecutive third downs to drive down the field, the final of which was on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, which became a touchdown run to cut Thompson’s lead to 21-17.

“We have to get off the field on third down,” Freeman said. “That was one of five different mistakes in the first half that changed the game.”

But with 1:20 left in the half, Thompson’s offense went right back to work.

In seven plays, the Warriors marched right down the field behind big plays from Jojo Gaiters and Roberson. But the biggest play was a 27-yard pass to J.B. Mitchell that put Thompson on the 2-yard line with 3.4 seconds left in the half.

On the 2-yard line, the Warriors decided to roll the dice and go for it—a decision that paid off. Out of a timeout, Pate hit Mitchell for the touchdown to put Thompson on top 28-17 going into the half.

But early in the third quarter, the third down woes continued.

On Florence’s opening drive of the half, the Falcons took advantage of two converted third downs before scoring on a 19-yard touchdown on third-and-nine to cut Thompson’s lead to 28-24 less than four minutes into the quarter.

To that point in the game, Florence was 8-13 on third downs.

But as they had done all night, the offense marched right down the field with ease. In just three plays for the second time in the game, Thompson went 70 yards behind two big plays from Mitchell and a 13-yard touchdown catch from Roberson—his second of the night.

Leading 35-24 heading to the final quarter, the Warriors looked to be in good shape and the outlook got even better when Evan McGuire made a 42-yard field goal to extend the lead to 38-24 with 10:35 to play.

But Florence wasn’t done fighting yet.

The Warriors punted the ball away with 4:40 to play in the game, but the punt only traveled a short distance and all the Thompson players ran 15 yards by the ball. With no one around, Florence picked it up and took it 45 yards for the touchdown to make it a 38-31 game with 4:24 to play.

“That happens sometimes,” Freeman said. “You have to be able to create a cushion for when freak things like that happen. We never practice 10-yard punts and somebody picking it up and running with it. But now that’s on our radar.”

After kicking it away, the Falcons ended up making one last defensive stop to get the ball back at their own 21 with 1:58 to play looking to tie the game.

Thompson’s defense stepped up and quickly forced a fourth-and-8 from the 23-yard line, but Florence stepped up and converted to keep the drive alive.

With the clock dipping under a minute, the Falcons crossed midfield to the Thompson 48-yard line, which forced a timeout from the Warriors to regroup.

On the first play out of the timeout, Williams was positioned perfectly in the secondary to pick off a pass that sailed just over the intended receiver’s hands to ice the game.

“The situation was that we needed a turnover,” Freeman said. “They had already converted a big play on that drive so we needed that play.”

Pate finished the game 20-of-27 for 338 yards and three touchdowns for the Warriors, while his backup Harrell was 1-for-1 with 67 yards and a touchdown.

At receiver, Pettway, Mitchell and Roberson all had stellar games. Pettway finished the game with 189 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions, while Mitchell had one of his best games of the season with 134 receiving yards and a touchdown on six catches. Roberson had a team-high two touchdowns, while also adding 58 yards on just three catches.

Defensively, Jeremiah Alexander and Peter Woods had two tackles for loss, while Jax Van Zandt, EJ Edwards, Owen May, Tiger Faavi and Williams all had one tackle for loss.

Thompson will play host to Hoover in a rematch of the last two semifinal games. The two teams have split those matchups with Hoover winning two years ago and Thompson winning last year. The Warriors won 48-30 earlier this season, but the team that has won the regular-season matchup has gone on to lose the playoff matchup each of the last two years.

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.