The Thompson football program has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse.
Just five short years ago the team finished with a 0-10 record as Thompson began its first sports calendar year in the newly created Class 7A. The school turned to Mark Freeman to change the program’s fortunes and the Warriors soon proved that they not only belonged, but they belonged in the conversation with the state’s elite.
Fast forward to 2019, two consecutive runs to the state semifinals and an appearance in last year’s state championship game has fans and media wondering what’s next for the Thompson Warriors.
Heading into the fall, Coach Freeman and his staff are dealing with double digit departing starters for the second consecutive year including top college prospects that will be difficult to replace. The likes of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa who led the state in passing yards, four year offensive line starter Amari Kight and 1,700 yard running back Shad Byrd have moved on to play on Saturdays. Losing playmakers on defense like DJ Douglas (16 TFL), Will Conner (14 TFL), Will Hoffman (14 TFL) and Jalen Bustamante (7 INT) and will also be tough to shoulder, but Coach Freeman believes this is an important moment for his program.
“This is the year that we’ve got to find some guys to step up with the pride and say the program’s not going to go backwards because we lost some good players. And if we find them, we’ll have a good year.”
“We’ve done all the offseason work and preparation we can do. What we’ve done the last 18 years as a staff, but it’s going to boil down to our players making a self-evaluation. Do they want to continue the success?”
The Warriors found that success over the summer placing in the top 8 of the Foley 7-on-7 tournament then went on to win their next tournament in Tuscaloosa with a fantastic offensive display, improved play on defense and didn’t lose a single game.
“We went four or five straight games where we scored every time we got the ball and defensively I thought we played pretty good that day. Obviously, to win that tournament you’ve got to make some stops and they did.”
Coach Freeman knows the development of his secondary will be crucial to the team’s overall success in the Fall.
“That’s going to be key: can we get them ready to step in and help us win games. And if we can and you win enough games along the way and win the right games to get in the playoffs I️ think we can we a pretty good team again.”
New starting quarterback Sawyer Pate’s steady improvement will also be vital. The rising senior sacrificed the 2019 baseball season to focus on leading his teammates on the turf and his team first mentality is paying dividends. Having already won a 7-on-7 tournament last summer and being thrust into duty in the 2018 state championship, Pate is ready to take the reins full-time and it showed in both the spring and summer.
“He’s been in the room with us for two years when we’ve been game planning huge games: two semifinals and a state championship,” said Freeman. “He’s been around while we’ve put the puzzle together, he knows what to do with the ball and can run our offense.”
“I️ was really proud of the game he had coming out of spring training. He ran for his life, but he threw five touchdowns with no interceptions, no turnovers, over 300 yards passing and I️ don’t think our receivers dropped a ball all night.”
The prowess of the Warriors’ passing attack should allow for the run game to evolve where Thompson will break in four brand new starters along the offensive line. Freeman admits much was also unknown about his 2018 group going into the season, yet another strong playoff run followed.
That unit’s growth will continue this summer as the team welcomes Oxford and Dothan to Warrior Stadium for OTAs or “organized team activities.”
An activity typically reserved for the professional ranks, Coach Freeman has adapted OTAs to the high school level bringing another element of competition just before fall camp begins in a couple of weeks.
“We did it some at Spanish Fort and we’ve done it twice since I’ve been here. We did it with Park Crossings and Oxford then Hazelgreen and Oxford and now this year we’ll bring back Oxford and add Dothan this year.”
“We get eleven guys out there and we all know each other and we can design it how we want to go as far as we want to work on this and they want to work on that. We go all the way through special teams. Two teams go at it while the third rests, we get some 7-on-7 in and then a controlled scrimmage with no tackling. Great work for the offensive and defensive lines as well.”
Then the teams will all head to Clay-Chalkville this week for a final 7-on-7 where the offensive and defensive lines will travel up with the team as well. With just over a month until the season begins, Coach Freeman knows the time for talk is over.
“Now we’ve got to get on the field with attitude that we’re going to do what it takes to win games. It’s not a magic formula. We’ve done the same thing for a long time, it’s these kids’ turn to do it.”