Class 2A blog: Championship preview

No. 4 Thomson, No. 1 Fitzgerald play at noon at Georgia State for the title; Cane looking to become 2A’s first repeat champs since 2010
(Adam Krohn/for the AJC)

Credit: Adam Krohn

Credit: Adam Krohn

(Adam Krohn/for the AJC)

Also check out Ep. 60 of The Class 2A Blogcast to hear interviews from coaches Michael Youngblood (Thomson) and Tucker Pruitt (Fitzgerald), and radio announcers Dennis Sanders of WTHO in Thomson, and Bill Bryant of WRDO in Fitzgerald.

On Friday, the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane will attempt to do something no 2A school has done in more than a decade, which is repeat as state champions. The Thompson Bulldogs, eyeing their first state title in 20 years, will attempt to stop the Cane from not only repeating, but from completing their first 15-0 season in their storied history, which began in 1908.

The game is scheduled for noon and will be played at Georgia State.

The top-ranked Cane (14-0) are in the championship for a third year in a row. They lost to Callaway in 2020, then beat region rivals Thomasville last year for their second title in program history and first since 1948.

The Cane are so used to making the annual three-hour trip to the title game that there’s now a template for the commute.

“We basically took out the travel plans, itinerary and schedules and changed the dates,” Cane coach Tucker Pruitt said. “We’re going up the same time, we’ll stay and eat at the same place and, hopefully do it all over again. Hopefully there’s an advantage to being here before, but usually when you get to this game, it’s anything can happen in 48 minutes.”

The Cane got here unscathed, record-wise, in large part because of their defense, which is giving up an average of 11.93 points despite playing one of the toughest schedules of any 2A team. They opened with a come-from-behind win over rivals Irwin County and edged Northeast 28-27 with a defensive stand in game No. 3.

The following week, they traveled to Brunswick to play in the Georgia vs. Florida Border Classic and beat Madison County, the 1A champions in Florida last year. For that game, the Cane traveled the night before with their top 30 players, stayed in a hotel and had a meeting and a walk-through in the morning before the game.

(From September: Fitzgerald coach Tucker Pruitt discusses the non-region schedule in Ep. 48 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

“That was good practice for what we’ll do this week,” Pruitt said. “We want to keep the main thing the main thing, which is playing our best football Friday at noon.”

With the exception of a 20-12 win over Dodge County, the Cane blew past Region 1 competition with double-digit wins, good for their second 1A title in three years.

In the playoffs, they beat Central, Putnam County and Rockmart in overtime to reach the semis, and last week they forced Fellowship Christian into playing uncharacteristically mistake-filled football and won 19-9.

The Cane opened the game with a long, clock-chewing drive, then punted inside the Paladins’ 5. On the possession, the Paladins’ quarterback slipped in the end zone on a play-action pass for the safety. Following Fellowship’s safety punt, the Cane executed another long drive, this time punching it for a touchdown and 9-0 lead. The Paladins then fumbled the ensuing kickoff back to Fitzgerald, which melted more clock and scored again to go up 16-0. Then the Paladins fumbled again, and that was how the first half went.

It was similar to the first half of last year’s title game, when they dominated Thomasville in the first half to gain control, and never lost it.

Or, as Pruitt puts it: “Take the lead, milk the clock and get out of there.”

Thomson coach Michael Youngblood said for his team to avoid the Cane’s ball control trap, discipline is vital.

“They’re a handful,” Youngblood said. “They’ll show you single wing, Wing-T and spread. It’s all about staying home, because they’ll show you a waggle run play, then take the wing back and run a screen away from who they just faked it to. They’ll try to slip the tight end across the formation and down the sideline. They’ve got so many different screens and trick plays that, if they get stagnant, they’ll just dial up one of those plays to get them a bump of adrenaline to get their offense going.”

Unlike Fitzgerald, which has made a recent habit of reaching the title game, the No. 4 Bulldogs (13-1) haven’t been there since 2016, when the championships were played at the Georgia Dome. They last won in 2002, going 15-0 to claim 4A. Like the Cane, their history goes way back, with the program’s first season in 1912. They have five state titles.

Also like the Cane, the Bulldogs will travel the night before for their nearly-two-hour bus ride.

“Atlanta is a very funny place,” Youngblood said. “One day, you can ride in there and everything is coastal clear and you can just ease on through. Sometimes you come to Atlanta, and you can never get to where you’re supposed to be. So, we’ll have a nice, big dinner at the school on Friday cooked by some great volunteers, then go to the buses, stay in a hotel and beat all that traffic and worrying I have when it comes to Atlanta traffic and getting stuck.”

The Bulldogs were a late-scoring drive away from being 14-0, losing to Burke County 24-21 in their season opener, after a failed fourth-down conversion from the opponent’s 10. With it being a non-region contest, Youngblood opted to forego a potential game-tying field goal and steal a win.

The Bulldogs haven’t lost since. They opened Region 4 play with a 15-14 win over Laney in a game that ended prematurely due to gunfire, they pummeled the remaining five teams on their league schedule, outscoring them 309-23 for their second straight region title after winning 4-3A last year.

In the playoffs, they made quick work of Tattnall County and Cook before their epic showdown at South Atlanta in the semifinals, which was highlighted by a fourth quarter that featured a combined 60 points scored, and two Jontavis Curry 90-plus-yard kickoff return touchdowns.

The Bulldogs reloaded from that exhausting win in time to beat No. 3 Appling County on the road, 20-14, last week in the semis. They got another big performance from Curry, who scored all three of Thomson’s touchdowns. Youngblood said it’s one of the top individual performances he’s seen from a high school player during a playoff run since he got into coaching nearly two decades ago.

Youngblood’s other top performers are Jonathan Davis, a linebacker-running back at Tucker in 2008, when Youngblood was linebackers coach. In 2011, Youngblood coached quarterback-defensive back Donquell Green at Burke County, where he was cornerbacks coach. (Also in 2011, Tucker Pruitt was Thomson’s offensive coordinator.)

Davis went on to play for UCF and Green signed with Marshall. Youngblood hopes Curry, a senior, finds himself on a college team as well.

“Offensively, Jontavis might be the best I’ve seen for four games,” Youngblood said. “He’s already hit over 1,000 all-purpose yards in four playoff games. That speaks volumes to his ability. He’s gaining traction from colleges so hopefully, once we finish this game, we can find him a home he is comfortable with, and he can move on to the next level.”

Pruitt said Curry must be accounted for at all times, but Curry’s not the only Bulldog he worries about.

“Curry is as good as anyone we’ve played regardless of position,” Pruitt said. “He’s a complete game-changer...He can run to the house, but he can make you miss, he can spin off of you, bounce off of you, he can put his foot in the ground, reverse field and outrun everyone. He’s a special player, and he’s good enough to beat us, but it’s not just him. Their quarterback (Jahkiaus Jones) is a dual-threat who’s really good, and they use (Jordan Lane) a lot on screens and reverses. I also like their other running back (Trey Trey Jeffery). He’s shorter and thicker and can get downhill. Their offensive line is big, strong and physical and the staff does a great job of getting the ball into space.

“They’re probably the best team we’ve seen, and Curry is good enough to beat us on his own if we don’t bring our ‘A’ game.”

Like the Cane, the Bulldogs have a strong defense, allowing just 10.14 points a game. Junior cornerback Storm Hunt is tied for the state lead for interceptions, regardless of classification, with eight.

“They’ve obviously had a great year and they’re playing with a lot of confidence after beating Appling County,” Pruitt said of the Thomson defense. “It’s a huge challenge, but we’re not going to try to do a bunch of stuff we don’t do. We’re going to try to play our game, which is 48 minutes of mistake-free football, controlling the line, being who we are and seeing how that works out.”

For Thomson, the sixth title in program history is within reach. Youngblood expects a battle for the hardware.

“It’s been a long time,” Youngblood said. “We’re fortunate enough to be in this situation, but we understand our assignment and the task at hand, which is to dethrone the reigning champs. We’re not going to be able to walk up and say, ‘Hey, it’s our turn.’ We’ve got to be disciplined on defense, match their physicality and win more 1-on-1 matchups than they win. I feel like this is going to be a good game, and good chess match between the coaches, because we both do unconventional things at times.”