Defending champ Thompson gets back to work

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

ALABASTER – As head coach Mark Freeman pulled up Warrior Parkway on Monday, June 1, he saw something he hadn’t seen in close to three months—other cars in the parking lot.

With the AHSAA allowing high school football teams to return to campuses across the state on June 1, the defending Class 7A State Champion Thompson Warriors, led by Freeman, fully took advantage of that opportunity.

“All you can say is ‘Thank you Lord, you got us back here to carry on with life,’” Freeman said. “Seeing all the cars in the parking lot when I got here, it really started to hit home that our guys were back!”

It marked the first day the team was back together since March 13 when the school year and all activities abruptly came to an end, and while it was a slow start edging back into the swing of a routine, it was a day the team and staff cherished to have together.

“There’s a greater appreciation from all of us,” Freeman said. “I don’t think our kids today remembered whatsoever that they won the state championship a year ago. What they do know is that they’re back doing what they love to do.”

The day featured physicals with the coaches and trainers there as well as health screenings before doing anything else. The players and coaches then paid special attention to social distancing, face masks and sanitizing throughout their workouts and conditioning during the day.

Freeman said that he previously would have considered the day one where the team didn’t get enough done. But with everything taken away for close to three months, there was a greater appreciation from everyone there.

“It gives you a sense of humility,” he said. “We’re all guilty of taking things for granted. When you coach, like myself, for 20 years or more, you take that first day of summer practice for granted.

“A few years ago, I would have felt like we got nothing done today, but we got to support our kids, see our kids, emotionally spend time with them and condition them a little bit. The most important part of getting our kids back was the emotional side of it.”

Freeman added that it’s not going to be the normal first week of practice because there was no spring practice to get the players acclimated, so some may not be in as good of shape as they usually would be.

The goal will be for the players to get in shape over the next couple of weeks and work toward going full on near the end of June, before a break on July 4 and then fall practice starting July 27.

That goes for conditioning, but the team is still working hard when it comes to weight lifting

We’re way off schedule. Really, we’re just going to try and get our guys back this month and then get back to normality in July.

That’s for conditioning. The team put in good work in the weight room and plans to continue working hard on their strength training since many have been focusing on that from home over the last few months.

Not only is this year’s Thompson team excited to be back to work as the 2020 season is now less than three months away, but there is also excitement from the Warriors due to the number of returnees looking to defend their state championship.

While they lose All-State quarterback Sawyer Pate, most of the team’s top receivers will be back, the majority of the offensive line will be back and key running backs will be back on the offensive side of the ball.

But defensively is where this year’s team will shine. It could be the best defense in the state with several athletes who have Division I offers playing on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.

“Overall, we want to come out and play good and play hard early so we have a chance when we hit the region play,” Freeman said. “We played our best ball in playoffs last year and hope to do that again this year.”

Building toward that will be key over the next few weeks leading up to fall practice and then again in fall practice, but Freeman knows everybody is on a level playing field during 2020.

“We’re all starting out even this year,” he said. “Everybody is going to be on the same, even playing field and no one team is going to have an advantage over other teams.”

One thing that does worry Freeman, however, is the cancelation of 7-on-7 tournaments and OTAs. Freeman said the team normally plays in close to 50 7-on-7 games each summer, and while many don’t play their normal offense and defense in them, his team does. It gives the offense a good chance to run a play and then get up to the line to run the next play in his fast-paced and high-powered system.

“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” Freeman said. “It’s my biggest concern. Our whole offense is built off of that. We can call stuff, teach stuff and come back and work on it in practice. Now, we’ll have to do a good job of competing in practice with similar situations to implement what we need to.”

Opening with Oxford and then taking on Sparkman a week later in the first two weeks will give the Warriors a strong test early in the season while breaking in a new quarterback, meaning they’ll have to do a good job of replicating competitive situations against one another in practice.

But that makes the players more excited to get to that first day of putting on pads and that first game against another opponent, which could show a different passion than we’ve possibly seen in the past knowing that it can be taken away in the blink of an eye.

“That first day of fall camp and that first game will be even more special this year because we were at one point worried about having our season,” Freeman said.