December 10, 2016 - Atlanta, Ga: Fitzgerald running back JD King (18) runs for yards in the second half of their game against Benedictine during the Class AA state championship game Saturday at the Georgia Dome December 10, 2016, in Atlanta, Ga. Benedictine won 49-26. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Class AA spring football: Winningest school aims for missing title

Since 2000, no Class AA school has won more games (195) than the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane. However, that feat comes with a significant caveat — they’ve never won a state title. They’ve been to the title game three times, the semifinals eight times, the quarters 12 times and the playoffs every year since 2000 but they’re still chasing the ultimate prize.

So, for them, when they strap on the gear every spring, the goal is always the same.

“There’s only one thing we haven’t done that we’re trying to do and that’s win a championship,” said Fitzgerald coach Tucker Pruitt, who will enter his third season. “We’ve been to the semifinals. A region title isn’t even our goal. We don’t even talk about that. It would be a great accomplishment and it would be awesome to have home field advantage for the first two rounds, and all of that. But that’s not our goal. 

“Our goal is to win game 15.”

The Purple Hurricane once again came pretty close to achieving that goal last season despite flying under the radar. They were unranked for all but the first two weeks of the season — and were never ranked higher than No. 9 — and they didn’t win their region. However, they reached the semifinals and narrowly lost to eventual champions Heard County, 38-30, in overtime. They had the Braves on the ropes too, missing a 46-yard field goal that hit the upright as regulation expired.

No other team came within double digits of Heard County during its dominant postseason run.

“Last year we started slow,” Pruitt said. “We needed to grow up some and we got better every week. We never made the same mistakes and we got more confident down the stretch. I never thought we were an unbelievable team, but we got better and we could handle adversity.”

They’ll be starting almost from scratch beginning this spring session, which begins April 30 and ends May 16, when they host Tifton at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $5.

Spring sessions will be a blend of practice on the field and studying in the film room, as well as an intrasquad scrimmage on May 10. It will also be the starting point for Pruitt and his staff to piece together a roster that’s losing eight starters on offense and seven on defense.

With Fitzgerald being an AA school, most of those were two-way starters.

On offense, they utilized a two quarterback system last year of Justin Reliford and Kody Krause. Both are gone. Running back Ethan Gordon is gone. All three receivers — Ozzie Hampton, Damien Devine and Antwoin Bouie — are gone. Also gone are their center, left guard and left tackle.

To replace Reliford and Krause at quarterback, Mac Turner — a 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior who transferred from Tifton — will compete with junior Rashad Davis (5-foot-8, 150 pounds) and senior Dartavious Tomblin (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) for the starting job.

Pruitt said the job will go to whomever best moves the offense.

“Those three have very different skillsets,” Pruitt said. “Davis is a good athlete who can throw. Turner can really throw but isn’t a great athlete and Tomblin is a good runner but not a great thrower. So, we cant’ run the same offense will all of those kids. Finding the right guy and right system will be a big part of our success.”

Senior running back Mario Clark, who has been patiently waiting in the wings and even started some as a sophomore, will be the team’s workhorse this season, though Pruitt said he’s looking for two more running backs to emerge as backups.

Pruitt said he’s excited about the offensive line, which will be led by GACA weightlifting champion Tony Duffie (6-foot,  320 pounds).

The unit that needs the most development is the defensive secondary, which will lean on a number of talented-but-untested players.

“It’s wide open in the secondary,” Pruitt said. “That’s what we graduated the most of. They’re working hard and I don’t know if they’ll be quite ready but they’re going to play. We’ll find out who, but whoever it is will be young and inexperienced.”

Though the Purple Hurricane are starting over, the plan will be to follow last year’s blueprint of getting better every week so that the team is playing its best when the postseason rolls around.

“Our goal is to win game 15,” Pruitt said. “We didn’t win region last year but we had a shot to win state, so (winning 1-AA) doesn’t matter to me. Look at Bainbridge last year. They went 5-5 and won state (AAAAA).”

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