Thompson falls short to Central-Phenix City, ending state championship streak

Published 1:25 am Thursday, December 7, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

TUSCALOOSA – The saying goes that it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey.

For the last six years, the destination for the Thompson Warriors has been the Class 7A State Championship Game.

But for the first time since 2018, the Warriors’ journey will not end with a blue map, as the Central-Phenix City Red Devils claimed the state title in a 21-19 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 6.

When the standard is as high as it is for Thompson, success is often taken for granted, but Warriors coach Mark Freeman was proud of what it took to get to the bright lights of the Super 7 for a sixth straight season.

“I would not be more proud if I was sitting here a winner tonight of our players, our coaches and just the grind to get here,” Freeman said. “Getting here is the hard part. We were blessed tonight to come in here and play a good football team and had our chance to win the game and I’m just thankful for that.”

As for the game itself, the teams got off to a wild start in the first half as the defenses came up big early with five combined turnovers.

Central quarterback Andrew Alford got the passing game going on the opening drive with a 41-yard pass to new Auburn commit Cam Coleman, but Trent McCorvey forced a fumble for the Warriors to prevent any points.

Trent Seaborn and the Thompson offense could not get going on their opening drive and were picked off on a third down pass around midfield. Warriors coach Mark Freeman took advantage of the state championship replay rules to challenge the call, but the turnover stood.

Thompson’s defense responded on the next drive as Anquon Fegans grabbed an interception that gave his team the ball back deep in its own territory.

The Warriors drove past midfield after Seaborn found Angel Jones at the Central 45, but the Red Devils forced a punt afterwards as the early theme of dominant defenses continued.

Alford continued working his passing options and picked up a pair of first downs in the air. However, it was the running back Tristan Williams who capped off the 86-yard drive with a two-yard rushing touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.

The Red Devils nearly kept their momentum going by forcing a three-and-out, but their returner muffed the Thompson punt and Caleb Fox was there to recover it.

Central’s secondary continued to lock up Warriors options and was there to keep Deuce Oliver from taking a Seaborn pass for a first down.

After the turnover on downs, Alford tried a downfield shot again on third down, but a wild sequence saw Fegans intercept the ball, get stripped by Daylyn Upshaw and turn into an incompletion.

Thompson’s special teams came up big on the next play as Vini Pires blocked the Red Devils punt to set up the Warriors with a great chance to score from the 11-yard line.

The Warriors tried to pick up the distance on the ground, but while they were short of the line to gain, John Alan McGuire nailed a 21-yard field goal for Thompson’s first points of the game, cutting the deficit to 7-3 with 6:55 left in the half.

Williams struck again with a big gain towards the beginning of the drive, and a fourth down completion to Dylan Gentry kept the Red Devils going.

Just like on the first scoring drive, Williams was the one who finished off the drive, this time with a first down carry and a nine-yard touchdown run to go up 14-3.

Thompson had a chance to respond before halftime, but a fumble sent the teams to the locker room with the same score.

However, at halftime, just like in Thompson’s last two games against Vestavia Hills and Hewitt-Trussville, the team responded to Freeman and his staff in the locker room and the players drew on the mentality that got them to this point.

“When you get to coach people like we have here, these kids, they do anything that we asked them to do, and that locker room at halftime? You’d have thought we were winning by three touchdowns when we left there,” Freeman said. “And they did it on their own. They go in there and they know that the mentality of our program is to not bow down to nothing. We don’t create pressure for ourselves. We go play the game and thank God for the opportunity.”

The Warriors received the ball to open the second half, and it initially looked like they would continue their first half performance after they punted the ball again.

However, Central muffed its second punt of the night, and just like the first, Fox was there to land on the ball and keep the drive alive.

That powered the Warriors to their first trip to the end zone. Hearn grabbed a 23-yard catch to set up Thompson on the 18, and then Colben Landrew high-pointed a Seaborn pass to the end zone in coverage for a touchdown to cut the Central lead to four.

After the teams traded punts, the Warriors defense recovered from a 34-yard run by Zack Simmons-Brown on the opening play to force a turnover on downs and regain possession.

A first down run by Green kickstarted the ensuring Thompson drive, and a pair of pass interference penalties set up the Warriors with a great chance to score inside the 10.

While Thompson couldn’t find the end zone, McGuire hit his second field goal of the night, this time from 29 yards out, to pull within one in the early moments of the fourth quarter.

The Red Devils quickly responded three plays later as Coleman took a short pass to the house by turning on the jets for a 73-yard touchdown which put Central up 21-13.

Thompson kept fighting to give itself a chance to win. Oliver had an impressive one-handed catch to get inside Central territory, which stood following a Red Devils challenge.

Seaborn then hit Landrew in stride for the 36-yard touchdown just one minute after the Coleman score to pull within two points. However, the two-point conversion was no good, and Central still led 21-19 with nine minutes left.

The Warriors defense came up big again and forced another punt on the ensuing Red Devils drive to give them a chance to win.

After starting the drive on the Red Devils 44, Thompson drove 18 more yards before attempting a 40-yard field goal with 2:46 left in the game.

The Warriors missed the attempt, and that let Central run out the clock for the 21-19 victory and the state championship.

In addition to the five turnovers for the Warriors, Vini Pines had eight tackles, Tyler Hicks secured six tackles and Jayden Davis, Curtis Oliver-Avery and McCorvey had five tackles.

Seaborn went 21-for-34 passing for 234 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Green had 22 carries for 69 yards. Landrew secured three catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns and Deuce Oliver had five catches for 52 yards.

While Thompson’s streak of four straight state championships came to an end, Freeman was proud of the players who got the team to this point and chose to keep the same posture of gratitude that he and his team have often shown when winning in defeat.

“It hurts right now, but the same people crying right now are the ones that got us here and in life, life is not always going to be where you smile at back to back,” Freeman said. “We’re going to be judged right now. We’ve had four years to talk about how good God is, how good our program is. Now we’ve got an opportunity to show who we really are.”

Freeman was especially proud of his senior class, choking up while saying, “they mean everything.”

One of those seniors, Green, reflected on the night and the road to get to this point.

“It’s been a journey, it’s been a long journey,” Green said. “It’s been a great journey. What I want to take away are things like praising God. Doesn’t matter if we win, lose, we’re always going to praise God. You’ve got to work to get to where we want to be. And we played hard. We wanted to win at the end of the game so we never quit.”

That work ethic was something Freeman wanted to emphasize after the game. While the Warriors have certainly made winning look easy over the past six years, Freeman has seen what it takes to get to this point each year and knows that they are entitled to nothing.

Because of that, he and the Warriors are ready to get back to work and put in the effort to get to the championship next year.

“That’s what’s unfair to our players, is that you don’t just get in these games because we’ve got Thompson or something on our chest,” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of hard work that I think goes unappreciated by some people. I don’t mean that toward any person or groups of people. It’s just you don’t get to this game without sacrificing something. And it has to be a lot of things go your way to get here.

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be. We’re working hard. I’m not going to take a backseat, apologize to nobody about people looking at our program. But it is a task to be these guys’ age and push, and their judgment is a state championship game, much less the game but winning. And until you’ve been there, it’s hard to even understand what it’s like to start the season off when most everybody you’re talking to is, where’s the state championship at this year?

“That’s OK, though. But there’s a grind. And, mentally, these guys wore out right. And these coaches wore out right. But we should be. But we’re no more worn out than if we won the game. So, we’re not going to apologize for that. We’re going back to work and come back in December with the mentality of getting that first month in, checking it off, second month and everything. It’s worked out great for us, we’re not going to change none of that, just get back to work with the kids.”