Warriors Dismantle Red Devils, Become First 7A Program to Three-Peat in the Modern Era
The Thompson Warriors have been the class of 7A all year and when the time came to cement their legacy as one of the greatest teams in Alabama high school football history, they didn’t flinch for one moment. Mark Freeman and his ball club etched their names in football lore as they thoroughly dismantled the previously undefeated Central-Phenix City Red Devils, building a 30 point fourth quarter lead en route to a 38-22 final at Birmingham’s brand new Protective Stadium Wednesday, December 1st.
”It was personal to get here, to be the Birmingham (area) team this first year,” said Coach Freeman. “And once we got here we didn’t want to stop there, we wanted to win the championship in Birmingham this year.”
”Before the game I️ always take a peak up there,” said Ryan Peppins, talking about the fans of Alabaster that dotted the new stadium. “Jeremiah (Alexander) was with me earlier before the game and we just looked at each other and said we can’t let the city down. From then on it was game time.”
This program is bigger than any one player and, to the shock and dismay of many on the Thompson sidelines, the Warriors would have to prove just that from the outset of the contest.
After the defense forced a big stop after six plays from the Red Devils, Conner Harrell took the field and guided the offense into Central territory with two double-digit gains to Ryan Peppins and a big third down conversion to Deuce Oliver under duress. Harrell took a big hit to his ankle on the play, but stayed in the game to complete the second pass to Peppins to the 25 yard line. It was immediately apparent after that the senior was hurt and despite trying to walk off the field, had to be helped to the medical tent from there.
Déjà vu swept across the Thompson players, coaches and fans as memories from the 2020 state championship instantly came to mind when Harrell injured his shoulder and was unable to return. Perhaps it was providence that Harrell had had to exit the regular season finale against Hoover, forcing backup sophomore quarterback Zach Sims into action and a subsequent two playoff starts, but Sims, armed now with valuable experience, didn’t blink either.
He stood strong in the pocket on a run-pass option two plays later and found his fellow sophomore Oliver who broke through the coverage for a 24 yard touchdown with 5:28 to go in the first quarter.
The Warriors defense took it upon themselves to shoulder the load next as Peter Woods wrapped up Central QB Caleb Nix as he stepped up in the pocket for a sack on the first play of the drive. They stuffed the run on the next play and Tony Mitchell defended a pass beautifully on third down to force a punt that would give Thompson the ball at the Red Devils’ 49 yard line.
With a short field, Sims calmly led his team down the field again. It wouldn’t be without adversity as he was sacked on the 25 with the ball coming loose and Justin Pegues thankfully recovering the fumble, but Sims responded under pressure hitting Pegues along the left sideline on the next play. The shifty, talented running back/receiver did the rest staying in bounds and breaking through a would-be tackler for a 26 yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead as the first quarter drew to a close.
On the next series, the defense forced Nix into another third-and-long and took matters into their own hands as pressure forced a long throw into the waiting hands of safety Anquon Fegans who returned it to the Central 39 yard line.
The Red Devils recovered a botched handoff in their own red zone, but Thompson went tit for tat seven plays later as a fumbled snap from Nix squirted loose and senior defensive lineman AJ Allen smothered it to get the ball back to an offense that would see Conner Harrell return to the fray with a freshly taped ankle.
Pegues would help his QB ease back into the game, running five times for 18 yards on the ensuing drive. Harrell would find Peppins again to get their team back in field goal range for Trevor Hardy. Hardy would send a high, arcing kick 37 yards through the uprights for a 17-0 lead with 5:17 to go in the first half.
Next, Jeremiah Alexander would pick the perfect moment for the 100th tackle for loss of his storied Thompson career. On another third-and-long, Alexander found himself one-on-one with Nix and chased him down for a massive 16 yard loss extinguishing the drive.
With one last chance at the end zone before halftime, the Warriors would capitalize once again. Operating from his own 41, Harrell lofted a perfect throw downfield to Peppins who, with a defender draped all over him, made an amazing over-the-shoulder grab as penalty flags flew to put Thompson right back in the red zone. He would go for 131 yards in the opening half on six receptions.
Two plays later it would be Peppins again who would fittingly snag a seven yard pass in the endzone for a 24-0 lead. The senior receiver was decked on a late hit drawing a chorus of boos from the Thompson crowd and the raucous environment would persist as with two Red Devils whistled for personal fouls on the extra point attempt as the championship devolved into a fracas in the waning moments of the half.
In a bizarre set of events, the three different personal fouls were all assessed on the following kickoff and put Thompson at the Central 15 yard line for an onside kick that dribbled harmlessly to the six yard line where the Red Devils were unable to threaten before the horn sounded.
The Warriors defense hounded Nix all night and forced a 4-15 first half performance for just 49 yards and played behind the line of scrimmage with five tackles for loss in that same span.
Nix and the Red Devils would return in the second half and turn in an impressive 11-play, 90 yard touchdown drive despite multiple penalties and converted the two point conversion to make it 24-8 with 4:57 to go in the third quarter—but that is as close as they would get for the remainder of the evening.
“I think when you win howe many games it was in a row and the miracle game last year I️ think part of you says we’re going to win the game,” said Freeman. “We give up a touchdown, we can win the game. Give up two touchdowns, we can win the game. But there’s also got to be a part of you, I️ told the guys before the game, that we’re desperate to win.”
Despite Central’s defense forcing three consecutive three-and-outs to begin the second half, Thompson’s defense would answer the call once more. With Nix leading his team back into Warrior territory, he left a pass just short and Trevor Hardy snatched it at the 16 yard line to end the threat.
After the defense forced a three-and-out of their own, it would be Harrell and Peppins would leave no doubt on the next two drives. Harrell, with the offense stalled in the third quarter, came out slinging the rock in the fourth hitting Jaylen Ward on a beautiful back shoulder fade for 38 yards. The very next play, Harrell dropped it right into Bo Jones’ breadbasket with the sophomore receiver making a great contested catch to put the Warriors at the three yard line.
Harrell would stroll into the endzone on a broken play to shut the door for a 31-8 lead. He was hit late on the play prompting an ejection of the same player who hit Peppins before halftime.
The dynamic duo, who have combined for a school record 23 touchdown passes connected one last time on the next drive for a 73 yard score in classic fashion as Peppins dusted his defender and rushed across the goal line for a 38-8 lead.
”Last year don’t matter, the year before don’t matter,” said Freeman. “Tonight will stand on it’s own in history and you’ve got to be desperate to win and I️ think they showed us that.”
Tre’Quon Fegans joined his brother Anquon with an interception of his own in the fourth quarter to give him a team-leading fourth pick of the season and the 14th of his career.
Harrell finished 10-17 for 272 yards and three total touchdowns in the championship while Peppins was named the game’s MVP with a gargantuan 204 yard, two touchdown performance. Justin Pegues led the team in rushing with 54 yards on 15 carries to go with two receptions for 32 yards and a touchdown. Deuce Oliver grabbed two passes for 32 yards and a touchdown.
Tre’Quon Fegans led the defense with six solo tackles and broke up two passes to go with his interception. Jake Ivie, Jax Van Zandt and Seth Hampton all collected 4.5 tackles with each of them grabbing a tackle for loss and a sack for Van Zandt. Jeremiah Alexander and Peter Woods also garnered sacks for the Warriors who forced four turnovers including a season-high three interceptions and four sacks.
The win gives Thompson their third straight state title—the first team to do so since the creation of Class 7A. It is also the 9th state title for head coach Mark Freeman in his legendary high school coaching career.
The Warriors also broke the team record set last year for points in a season (604) with 636 points this year. The defense was perhaps even more dominant allowing just 7.1 points per game, scored a touchdown in seven different games, recorded five shutouts, amassed a team record 160 tackles for loss with and a state record 92 punts forced.
Simply put: one of the greatest teams of all time. Thank you for an unforgettable season, Warriors!