Class 2A blog: Defending champs Fitzgerald mounting another title run

Credit: Special to the AJC

Credit: Special to the AJC

Purple Hurricane end non-region schedule 4-0, ranked No. 1

Despite an influx of private schools into 2A after the latest reclassification, including ELCA — the Chargers opened the preseason ranked No. 1 — the defending champion Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane continue to plug away and win football games. After their 20-12 win over Madison County at Brunswick on Saturday in the inaugural Georgia vs. Florida Border Classic, the Cane are 4-0 for the third year in a row.

With their 57-6 win over Tuner County in Week 2, they reclaimed the top spot in the rankings and have held it since.

Highlights of the non-region schedule, which is now complete, include come-from-behind wins over 1A Division I’s No. 2 Irwin County, and 2A’s No. 10 Northeast. Against the Indians, they quickly went down 14-0 before prevailing 28-20 with a late scoring drive. They trailed the Raiders 21-6 in the second quarter and won 28-27 on a defensive stand.

The Cane usually challenge themselves with as competitive of a non-region schedule as they can find and this season, sixth-year coach Tucker Pruitt believes the team accomplished that.

“I really feel like our non-region schedule was everything I wanted it to be,” Pruitt said. “Week 3 was Northeast-Macon, and I don’t know if we’ll play anybody that’s bigger and more physical than they were. Their offensive and defensive lines were huge, they have a 235-pound running back that’s tough to tackle, and then you fast-forward to Madison County — we won’t play anyone with more team speed than them. They have some track guys and they’re burners at every position...holding them to 12 points is a small miracle.

“Really, 4-0 don’t mean a hill of beans...but I do feel like we’re growing and getting better week to week. I can see some things pointing in the right direction, so we’ve got to keep the right mindset, and keep doing the right things on a daily basis.”

Last year, it was the defense — led by EJ Lightsey, now at Georgia — that anchored the team, while the offense aimed to shorten the game running the ball. Pruitt questions if a player of Lightsey’s caliber will ever come through Fitzgerald again, and with the defense mostly young or inexperienced, it’s the offense that’s being leaned on more this year.

The Cane return eight of 11 starters on offense, but defensively Pruitt said the team is experiencing the same-type growing pains the offense did last year, when the defense was more experienced. AJC preseason all-state selection Senior Daniel James anchors the Cane’s defense, alternating between defensive end and linebacker.

“Daniel James is our guy,“ Pruitt said. “He’s been one of the very few consistent spots that we’ve been getting on that defense.”

They’re starting two sophomores at linebacker, Oreian Bly and Dewayne Westbrook, the position Lightsey played.

“They’ve just got to go out there and play, make some mistakes and learn from them,” Pruitt said.

The Cane have shown game-changing ability so far though. For example, last week, defensive back DJ Brown had two interceptions against Madison County.

On offense, the Cane have Sultan Cooper returning at quarterback, though Pruitt admitted that, at this point in the season, his skillset isn’t being maximized because most of their playmakers are running backs. The Cane don’t have a workhorse like DeNorris Goodwin was last year, and instead use a stable of 5-6 running backs, including Laphabion Boone, Sylon Davis, Cam Jackson, Diondre Paschal, Ty Solomon and Tyler Williams.

Davis, Williams and Paschal all rushed for touchdowns last week.

“They all play defense too,” Pruitt said. “So, whoever’s not tired, get in there and get your reps in.”

They also return three junior starting linemen in Levon Simmons, Christian Riggins and Wade Pierce, who join senior Xavier Walker.

Region 1 has changed over the past two reclassification cycles, shedding traditional 1-2A rivals Brooks County in 2020, then Thomasville this year. After a bye this week, the Cane open their region schedule hosting a Dodge County Indians team new to Region 1, but one they’re familiar with.

Last season, the Cane played Dodge County twice — Sept. 10 as part of their non-region schedule, and then in Round 1 of the playoffs — and escaped with 15-6 wins both times.

The Indians are 1-3 so far this year, but Pruitt said he’s ignoring Dodge County’s slow start.

“I’m not going to fall into that trap,” Pruitt said. “(Fitzgerald’s games last year with Dodge County) were close and could have gone either way, so I know the caliber of athletes they’ve got over there. All of their offensive skill kids are back and they have a lot speed. I’ve seen the scores (of the Indians’ losses this season) and to me, it doesn’t add up (with the talent they have). I know what they’re capable of, and any Friday night that you don’t go out there and play your best, you’re in jeopardy of getting beat. They’ve got a lot of talent, and we have a lot of respect for them.”

Though the region has new teams like Dodge County and Jeff Davis, the Cook Hornets remain and, at 3-1, are ranked No. 6. Worth County (4-0) has already matched its win total from last season under first-year coach Jeff Hammond.

“It’s a different region but I don’t know if it’s any less of a headache,” Pruitt said.

The Cane’s stated goals every season, according to Pruitt, are to beat Irwin County, win region and win state. Last year, they accomplished two of three, with Thomasville winning region. The Cane, of course, would go on to beat Thomasville in the championship game anyway.

At this early point, all three goals are still intact thanks to the Irwin County win.

No 2A team has repeated as state champions since Buford (2007-10), but Pruitt’s framing of this year’s run at a title isn’t about repeating.

“We’re really not looking at it from a lens of a repeat,” Pruitt said. “This is a new team, a new staff, and a new year. Those seniors are gone. We’ve got new leadership. It’s its own chapter. But our goal is definitely to win a state championship, and we know if we’re able to do that, it’s because we were able to make it happen on a daily basis. But that’s so far away.

“You don’t go from the bottom of the ladder right to the top. You’ve got to climb it one step at a time, and focused right now we’re focused on that.”

For more from Tucker Pruitt, check out his interview on Ep. 48 of The Class 2A Blogcast, which will publish soon. Check back here for an updated link or follow the AJC’s Class 2A reporting on Twitter.