Hometown heroes: Thompson wins 2nd state championship in school history

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

AUBURN – When Sawyer Pate and Mike Pettway met for a tear-filled hug under the lights at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, it was a different meeting than the one they shared in tear-filled locker room following a 52-7 loss to Central-Phenix City.

Standing near the 25-yard line, the two seniors found each other in a frenzy of teammates and coaches jumping around in celebration and immediately embraced in a long emotional hug after what they had just accomplished.

Setting out from the second they left the stadium last year to get back and prove they could win a state championship during their senior year, the two were able to hold true to that and propel Thompson to its first state championship since 1982 and second in school history with a 40-14 victory over the Red Devils to complete their path to redemption.

“That loss carried me and my receivers into the offseason with a lot of motivation to get back where we were and redeem what we did,” Pate said. “We’ve shown the state that Thompson is a team to beat now and we’re one of the best teams in the state,” Pate said.

“It feels amazing,” Pettway said. “Nobody really knows all the hard work we and the coaches put in. It feels amazing to come from losing seasons to slowly progress and get better each and every year.”

Pate ended the game 14-for-22 with 239 yards through the air and two passing touchdowns, while he also added two rushing touchdowns to earn the MVP of the championship game. Pettway finished with two catches for 48 yards, but both were big grabs.

“For me and Sawyer, it’s our senior year so we wanted to leave a legacy,” Pettway said. “That was our goal coming into the season, and we accomplished it.”

Those two, however, weren’t the only ones that played a major role in the win.

Thompson also dominated defensively allowing just one third down conversion in eight attempts, forcing three fumbles and picking up nine tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Jeremiah Alexander led the way with one forced fumble, eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack.

“Entering the playoffs, coach (Shawn) Defoor, the DC, pushed us to play the old Warrior style of defense, which was to get shutouts,” Alexander said. “We didn’t get shut outs in the playoffs, but it was a challenge that we worked hard for and it made us a better defense when it mattered most.”

It paid off, as the Warriors put together their best defensive performances since the first four games of the season to pick up the state championship win and make school history.

“If the people in this world knew what went on since we left here last year, they’d see how much this group of kids has grown,” Freeman said. “We have been so blessed. God has done some amazing work through these kids and that’s the great thing about the moment.”

The nerves of the state championship clearly got to the two teams early in the game despite having experienced it a year ago, as they combined for three fumbles in the first five minutes of the game.

Thompson’s first fumble came after Pettway set the Warriors up with great field position thanks to a kick return to the 10-yard line. But on the first play of the drive, JoJo Gaiters coughed up the ball into the end zone where Central recovered for a touchback.

The Red Devils, however, went on to fumble on their first offensive play of the game as well, which gave the ball right back to the Warriors at the Central 17-yard line.

But back-to-back sacks eventually led to a wide-left field goal attempt from Evan McGuire.

Even with the great field position, though, Central gave the ball right back on a second fumble in as many drives after starting to gain an offensive rhythm.

This time, Thompson capitalized.

A long drive highlighted by several strong runs from Jarrett Crockett, a third-and-five catch for nine yards from Tre Roberson, an offside on Central on third-and-3 and a 19-yard catch by Roberson on third-and-14 set up first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

That’s when Pate called his own number for a quarterback sneak and the touchdown—his first of many on the night. A missed extra point made it 6-0 with 2:11 left in the first quarter, as the Warriors took their first lead in a state championship game since 1982.

With that score, Thompson’s confidence on both sides of the ball grew exponentially.

The Warriors went on to play two strong defensive possessions in a row, and answered each with touchdowns offensively.

Both touchdowns were passes from Pate to J.B. Mitchell in the left corner of the end zone. The first was a perfect 14-yard fade pass that saw Mitchell go up and rip the ball down for a touchdown to put Thompson on top 13-0 with 7:15 left in the second quarter.

The next was an almost identical play, but this time from 19 yards out to put the Warriors in front 20-0 with 4:05 left in the half.

“We just go back to the offseason,” Mitchell said. “Me and him trust each other. We knew their defense was fast, but we figured out what they were doing and took advantage of it.”

Central answered thanks to an explosive play on the ensuing drive. Faced with 2nd-and-20 from their own 25, the Red Devils hit a 50-yard pass up the right sideline to pick up their largest play of the game.

After a couple more plays, Central was able to punch in a 1-yard touchdown run of its own to make it 20-7 with 1:42 until the half.

But Thompson had scored on three consecutive drives and still had plenty of time for another score. The Warriors marched right down the field behind more great plays, including another 19-yard pass from Pate to Mitchell.

With two seconds left in the half, McGuire nailed a 38-yard field goal to put Thompson in front 23-7 at the break in a rematch of a game the Warriors trailed 21-0 at the half last year.

“We trusted Sawyer tonight,” Freeman said of Pate’s first half. “We had a couple of matchups we really liked coming into the game, and we trusted our guys to make plays.”

Going into the locker room, Thompson had scored on four consecutive drive, and coming out of the locker room, the Warriors quickly made it five in a row.

After forcing a three-and-out by the Central-Phenix offense, the Warriors went to work, and eventually got it down to the Red Devils’ 4-yard line, but ultimately settled for a 21-yard field goal from Evan McGuire. Nonetheless, it was another drive with points to put Thompson on top 26-7 early in the second half.

The Red Devils attempted an answer, but ultimately fell short on fourth-and-4 from the Thompson 7-yard line after a lengthy drive that went deep into the third quarter.

Thompson, however, went three-and-out deep in its own territory, which gave Central the ball back at midfield to start the final quarter.

A 39-yard pass and an 11-yard touchdown run from Dexter Wright put the Red Devils in the end zone in just two plays to cut the deficit to 12 points with 11:32 to play.

But after that ideal start to the quarter, Central struggled again to find a defensive stop, which led to arguably the drive of the night.

Thompson put together a strong, time-consuming drive of a little more than four minutes. The drive was highlighted by a 36-yard pass from Pate to Andrew Barbour to set the Warriors up at the Central-Phenix 11-yard line.

Two plays later, Gaiters toted the ball all 11 yards into the end zone for an easy touchdown that put Thompson up 33-14 with 7:15 to play.

“That was the key drive of the game,” Freeman said. “It was an 80-yard drive that ate some time off the clock. When we scored that touchdown right there, we felt really good to go back up by 19 with the way our defense was playing. That was the drive that turned the game to our favor.”

On the ensuing drive, Thompson’s Ja’Vone Williams, who has made several big plays late in games this season on defense, stepped up and recovered the third fumble of the night to give the Warriors the ball back with 5:55 left to play.

Thompson went on to use up 4:42 of clock before Pate punched in his fourth and final touchdown of the night to put the cherry on top of an already special performance.

After Thompson made one more defensive stop, Pate got to take the final snap of the championship—a kneel down in victory formation to complete his journey.

Offensively, Mitchell finished the game with five receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns, while Barbour had two receptions for 61 yards. Roberson exited with an injury but also added two catches for 28 yards, one of which set up Pate’s first touchdown run. Gaiters led the rushing attack with 83 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, while Crockett added 13 carries for 50 yards.

Defensively, Sam Reynolds posted seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Gavin Shipman and Jax Van Zandt both had seven tackles and a combined 1.5 tackles for loss as well.

But it was a team effort that got the job done, as the Warriors stepped up to play their best football game of the season to pick up one of the school’s biggest wins in history.

“The gratification of winning a state championship is tremendous,” head coach Mark Freeman said. “That’s what we come out and play for. In the flesh, you’re trying to get the Blue Map. But the thing I’m going to get joy from riding home tonight is that I’ve got a hundred grown guys, that are going to understand that if they put their mind to something and have faith, it will go far beyond this room tonight.”

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com