Back to back: Thompson wins in miraculous fashion to claim 2nd straight championship

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

TUSCALOOSA – All hope was lost. At least that’s what it felt like inside Bryant-Denny Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 2 when Auburn High School had the ball at the Thompson 20-yard line up 28-19 with 1:19 left to play in the Class 7A State Championship game.

Chants of overrated from the Auburn crowd were barreling down on the Thompson players like a ton of bricks. But a miracle was about to unfold.

The Tigers knelt the ball three consecutive times thinking the game was in hand and forcing Thompson to burn its final timeouts. But with 40 seconds to play, Auburn decided to punt the ball instead of kneeling it again after pushing themselves backward.

After the punt was snapped, with nothing to lose, Thompson’s Korbyn Williams flew toward the punter, blocked it and scooped it up before racing close to 60 yards for a touchdown to pull the Warriors within two points with 18 seconds to play.

At the time, that seemed like a score to give the Warriors some excitement on an otherwise stale night.

But the jolt of energy from that play carried into an onside kick attempt in a string of redemption kicks for junior Trevor Hardy. His onside kick was recovered by Gavin Shipman with 18 seconds still left on the clock, giving Thompson the ball at the 48-yard line.

Then, after two pass interferences against the Auburn defense in three plays, Thompson moved all the way to the Tigers’ 18-yard line with four seconds to play.

That’s when Hardy trotted back on the field. After missing an extra point following Thompson’s first score of the game and punting the ball just 14 yards to set up an Auburn score later in the game, Hardy had his shot at redemption.

“I was just praying to God when I went out on the field,” Hardy said. “But once I got out there, I was all of a sudden calm.”

With the pressure of the state championship squarely on his shoulders, Hardy booted a low line drive directly through the uprights to complete the 29-28 win and a miraculous comeback to repeat as 7A champs.

“Right now, it’s just unbelievable. I just want to thank the good Lord, Jesus Christ,” Head coach Mark Freeman said after the astonishing comeback. “I’m basically speechless. The way things turn in the end and the way things happened was unbelievable.”

During the game, the Warriors had to overcome Hardy’s early struggles, being down their starting quarterback and one of the state’s best players in Conner Harrell for the entire second half and a 15-point deficit at the end of three quarters.

“We were put in a difficult spot with so many kids in different spots, but we just kept enduring and at the end and made a couple of plays,” Freeman said. “I’m not going to lie, we had guys on the sideline with disbelief in their eyes. It looked bad. But before their eyes, they saw a miracle. It’s an unbelievable life lesson.”

But it wasn’t all glitz and glam for the star-studded Warriors as they faced struggles throughout the game.

Early in the first half, nerves were definitely a factor, and it’s something both teams struggled to shake off. But both also showed flashes of why they made it to the state championship.

Thompson, who scored at will for most of the season, struggled on its first two offensive drives. The Warriors turned the ball over on downs on their first drive and were lucky to not fumble it away on their second drive thanks to a recovery deep in their own territory.

But on their third drive, they found success with a 12-yard run from Jarrett Crockett, a 51-yard catch from J.B. Mitchell and a 16-yard touchdown pass from Harrell to Ryan Peppins. After the PAT missed, Thompson had taken the early 6-0 lead in the championship game with 5:13 left in the opening quarter.

That lead, however, was short lived.

After back-to-back three-and-outs ended the first quarter, Auburn started the second quarter at midfield and put together a strong drive behind several runs.

The Tigers took 11 plays and 5:18 of game time to go 50 yards for their first touchdown when quarterback Matthew Caldwell hit Matthew Rhodes for a 12-yard touchdown pass. With the extra point good, they took a 7-6 advantage with 6:33 to play in the half.

That seemed to wake up both offenses.

Thompson answered back in less than two minutes thanks to the Auburn defense forgetting about Tre Roberson, who sprinted wide open down the middle of the field for a 56-yard touchdown pass from Harrell to put the Warriors back in front 13-7 in just three plays.

But Auburn came right back less than two minutes later as well.

The Tigers went 80 yards in five plays to regain the lead at 14-13 with 3:38 to play in the half.

Thompson had one more shot, but Harrell got sacked on third-and-8, and was forced out of the game. The Warriors went for it on fourth-and-long with Roberson just missing Crockett for a touchdown pass, which led to them facing a one-point deficit at the half.

But the bigger concern was the loss of Harrell at quarterback. The junior star came out of the locker room in the second half with a sling on his throwing arm, forcing Roberson into the starting quarterback job.

“I had to step in big time,” Roberson said after the game. “Nerves were there, but the plan was for me to step in and I was well prepared.”

But it was Auburn’s Caldwell who made the early plays at quarterback in the second half.

The senior quarterback talked about the heart of his team before the game, and it showed with his performance.

With 9:16 remaining in the third quarter, he picked up the Tigers’ third fourth-down conversion in the game, and this time he sprinted 44 yards for a touchdown to put the Tigers up 21-13.

Shortly after, Hardy’s punt from his own end zone gave the Tigers great field position at the Thompson 15-yard line, which led to another touchdown, this time from J.T. Rogers on a 3-yard run to make it 28-13 going into the fourth quarter.

But Thompson made crucial defensive plays down the stretch with a fumble recovery from Jeremiah Alexander and an interception from Tony Mitchell to keep the Auburn offense at bay the rest of the night.

Roberson also started making some plays with his arm despite the Auburn pass rush attacking constantly. He hit a couple of big pass plays to Peppins. One of those went for 6 yards and a touchdown to make it 28-19.

“Tre can lead. He’s our most versatile player,” Freeman said. “I  felt with the way they were blitzing us tonight, he could handle that better than anyone else. I can’t say enough about Tre Roberson and the person he is.”

But with the failed 2-point attempt following the touchdown connection, the Warriors still trailed by two scores.

The final eight minutes of the game ticked away quickly with the chance of repeating as state champions ticking away with each second.

But in the end, all the Warriors needed were those final 30 seconds for a miracle to win their second title in a row and third in school history.

Thompson was led by Harrell at quarterback before he went out. The junior finished 9-14 for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Roberson finished 11-18 for 84 yards and the one touchdown to Peppins on a sweep.

Peppins finished the game with 95 yards receiving and that lone touchdown, while Roberson added 57 on his touchdown catch. Mitchell added 69 in his final game and Sam Reynolds 26.

Defensively, the Warriors were led by Jax Van Zandt with 12 tackles, while K’Marion Hambright and Nate Riddle each had seven. Alexander totaled five tackles and the fumble recovery, while Mitchell added six with one interception.

In a year where no one knew how this season would end or unfold due to COVID-19, it was a fitting end.

“I can’t say this one was any better, but the way this year has been, the things we endured and battled through, I can truly say that was a proper ending,” Freeman said.

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.