The Thompson football team entered the 2019 offseason with questions galore. Could they keep the program’s momentum going? How do you replace Taulia Tagovailoa? How can you overcome losing over 20 starters in two years? And finally: can they take down Hoover again for a shot at redemption in the state championship?
At long last, the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes.
Another strong showing from Sawyer Pate and his receivers plus the most impressive defensive performance in Mark Freeman’s tenor equalled a 35-21 win at Warrior Stadium and a second consecutive trip to the 7A state championship.
The Warriors took the field as the fog rolled in on a cool, damp night in Alabaster. Across the field from them stood the Hoover Buccaneers, still seething from last year’s semifinal loss and Robby Ashford, back from an injury that derailed his season back in Week 3 of the season.
Thompson won the toss and elected to receive in the second half, giving Hoover the first shot on offense. The defense made their first impression on the second play of the game as Jeremiah Alexander broke through the line and slung Ashford to the ground for the sack.
Backed up inside their own ten, Hoover couldn’t convert and punted deep in their own endzone to give the Warriors great field position to start.
A pop pass to Ryan Peppins put them on the edge of the red zone but Pate wasted no time going for it all across the middle to a leaping JB Mitchell who snagged the pass and fell into the red zone for the game’s first score.
In what would become a trend, Hoover quickly responded as Ashford led the Bucs down the field and tied the game three minutes later with a touchdown pass of his own.
The teams traded multiple possessions as the defenses stiffened on both sides. Thompson played a beautiful field position game in the first half and we’re able to flip the field each time to pin Hoover deep on pooch punts from Pate.
The Warriors took the ball late in the second quarter and wouldn’t be denied any longer. In a crucial play, Pate fired a pass across the middle to a streaking Peppins, but the pass appeared to fall just short and scrape the turf before Peppins was able to gather it for the catch. Goaded on by his players, Mark Freeman threw the challenge flag to send the play to a replay review.
The replay revealed Peppins not only was able to scoop the ball before reaching the turf, but was able to pin the ball against his leg to ensure the catch in a play of incredible dexterity. With the call on the field reversed, the Warriors wasted little time and drove the remaining 40 yards and finished the drive appropriately with a 15 yard TD pass the Peppins for the 14-7 lead.
Hoover remained undeterred and answered again with just 29 seconds before halftime as Ashford found Anthony Hayes on a screen pass to tie the game at 14 heading into the locker room.
It would set up a crazy third quarter where Thompson’s defense would be called on time and again to stave off the Hoover attack.
Unable to score in the first drive, Thompson was forced to punt but the ball glanced off a Hoover defender giving the Bucs their best field position of the night. Working their way into the red zone, Ashford went to the air again but his pass fell short and into the waiting arms of Ja’Vone Williams who caught his sixth interception in the last six games.
Thompson regained possession, but disaster struck again as Pate was intercepted in Warrior territory putting the defense in another tough spot.
Again, Hoover went to the air, but couldn’t convert on two red zone throws forcing a field goal attempt. Buccaneer kicker Constantine Hontzas had been steady all year, including a game-winning field goal over defending champ Central Phenix City in the season opener, but pressure forced him to push the kick far right of the uprights to keep the game knotted at 14.
The Warrior offense finally found their moment on the ensuing drive converting on multiple third downs as Pate and his receivers found the holes in the Hoover defense. Sawyer would find his favorite target, Michael Pettway, in the back of the end zone from seven yards out to take the lead for a third time—and the last time.
Hoover responded and surged once more into Thompson territory, but I would be in vain. Junior safety Gavin Shipman saw a comeback route developing and jumped in front of the pass, racing in the other direction. Shipman found the cut back lane running across the field from left to right behind his blockers dashed into the end zone as an elated Thompson crowd cheered on the second pick six of the season.
The teams traded possessions again, but Hoover was able to flip the field and force Thompson to punt out of their own end zone. Now, with a short field, the Bucs took advantage.
Ashford would finally find his target Malik Thomas from 20 yards out in a controversial play that was also challenged. Thomas’ catch was poked out as he crossed the goal line and was initially ruled a touchback as the ball rolled out of the end zone. However, for the second time of the night, the call on the field was reversed and Hoover drew within one score at 28-21 with 8:51 remaining.
The Bucs would get the stop they needed on the next drive and had the ball with a chance to tie, but it would be Thompson’s defense that would shine again.
Once more in Warrior territory, Ashford dropped back but was rushed hard up the middle. The senior QB, rattled, lifted a pass up the left sideline, but again left it short as Gavin Shipman adjusted and intercepted his second pass of the night. Shipman has five picks on the season.
The Thompson offense would leave nothing to chance on their final drive.
Having struggled to run the ball for much of the evening, Sawyer Pate began to pull the ball on the zone read option and slowly spread the Hoover defense back out. Thompson kept knocking and finally knocked the door down as senior running back JoJo Gaiters took a run along the left sideline and found the edge running 60 yards inside the Hoover ten yard line for a chance to finish the game off.
Pate would again call his own number on the next play running the ball down to the one yard line. From there, Freeman placed the ball and the game on the broad shoulders of sophomore RB Brandon Franklin who bulldozed through the middle to send the Warriors back to the championship for a rematch with Central Phenix City.
Pate finished 24 of 32 for 239 yards and three TDs. Ryan Peppins went for a season and career-high 107 yards on eight receptions and a TD. JB Mitchell came up big again with eight catches for 67 yards and a TD while Michael Pettway chipped in 28 yards and the third TD while going over 1,100 yards for the season with 16 TD receptions.
JoJo Gaiters also went over 900 yards on the season collecting 68 yards against Hoover.
The defense finished with a season-high four interceptions and held the Bucs to just 83 rushing yards including 17 for Robby Ashford. Jeremiah Alexander led the unit with five tackles, two for loss with two sacks to run his 2019 total to 21 TFLs and 11 sacks.
The Warriors will meet the Red Devils Wednesday, Dec 4 with the game set to kick off at 7 p.m.