Class 2A blog: Semifinalist coaches talk last round’s win, this week’s matchup

Friday marks the semifinals round, and the winners will punch their ticket to Atlanta for the state championships, to be held at Georgia State’s stadium in downtown.

The Class 2A title game has a scheduled noon kickoff on Dec. 9.

Be sure to check out Ep. 59 of The Class 2A Blogcast to hear interviews from all semifinalist coaches, plus a breakdown of the quarterfinals and thoughts on Friday’s game.

Credit: Courtesy of GHSA

Credit: Courtesy of GHSA

Fellowship Christian Paladins (10-3; No. 1 seed, Region 8) at No. 1 Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane (13-0; No. 1, Region 1)

Maxwell’s projection: Fitzgerald by 12

Fitzgerald coach Tucker Pruitt

On reaching the semis again: “It’s awesome to be back, awesome to still be playing and having another opportunity at our goal of a state championship. It was a tough road last week with Rockmart, and they gave us all we wanted and then some more in overtime. Hopefully we didn’t use up all of our luck last Friday. Our kids had their backs against the wall and found a way to win, and we’re looking forward to another opportunity.”

On playing close, contested games each of the last two rounds: “There’s no substitute for experience. We played a pretty tough schedule. We knew we wanted to play for a championship, so we knew we were going to have to be tested. When you play good teams, they’ll show you what you need to work on. Our non-region schedule had a lot of good teams with Irwin County, Turner County, Northeast and Madison County (Fla.), so we’ve been there before. When we made the schedule, we didn’t think we’d be undefeated, but we knew we could improve. Iron sharpens Iron. It’s been everything we thought it would be, and we’ve been fortunate enough to win. Our kids play 48 minutes and they find a way to win.

On Cane running back Sylon Davis’ effort, and the challenge Rockmart presented: “Rockmart is a good program and coach Parsons does a good job. That was probably the fastest team we’ve seen this year. They really tested us on the edges...They were scoring 60-plus points a game in the playoffs, so to hold them to 14 points in four quarters, plus overtime, is a minor miracle. John Gamble and our defensive staff have done a great job. We weren’t proud of the first half. We missed 13 tackles. But, we made adjustments and only missed five tackles in the second half. Our offense didn’t play the way we wanted, but when our backs were against the wall, they drove 96 yards and scored (the game-tying touchdown) with two minutes left. Then, we got the ball first in overtime and scored. Sylon did his job, but at the same time, there were 10 others that were doing their jobs. This was really a team effort. It wasn’t our best performance, but Rockmart deserves credit for that. I’m proud of the resiliency we showed, and the ability to find a way.”

On the team’s mindset: “Hopefully we can carry some momentum into this week. This isn’t the first time we had to win a game like this. We went 96 yards against Irwin County in the season opener. We were tested in the first game, our last game and ever game between. This week we need to play with desperation from the opening whistle. We’ll back ourselves into a corner, and I’ll give them credit for fighting their way out of it, but if we can start out that way it greatly enhances our chances of winning...If we don’t carry momentum from last week, it still gave us another week. (Momentum) doesn’t get to carry over. You get what you earn. We have another week, and that’s all you can ask for.”

On Fellowship Christian: “They’ve got an awesome team. They dropped some games early to some really good teams that (all reached the Class 1A Division I quarterfinals). Looking at them recently, they’ve got a great coach. They can run the ball. They’ve got a quarterback (Caleb McMickle) committed to Houston who’s outstanding. The mix the run and pass well. Their play-action puts the overhangs in conflict because you have to put players in the box for the run, but they’ll stretch you out in the flats with comeback and drag routes. On defense, they play hard. A lot of length. Six-5, 250 at one end, 6-5, 235 at the other. Six-3, 210 at Mike linebacker. Lot of speed in the secondary, and they run a lot of slants and pinches that cause confusion. They don’t make mistakes. ELCA had their third turnover 27 plays into the game. Then, last week, Pierce County threw an interception on its first drive, muffed a punt and had two second-half interceptions. They’re good. They’re never out of position, and they’re not going to lose the game — we have to earn it and beat them. That’s a tall task, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Fellowship Christian coach Tim McFarlin

On being locked in: “We’re a long way from where we were when we opened the season. A lot of that has to do with — I don’t think people realize how young we are. Our quarterback is a senior, and he has done a phenomenal job, but a lot of things have come together. Defensively, we’re playing much better. There’s an understanding of our schemes. (Defensive coordinator Pat) Thompson does a phenomenal job, and he demands a lot. The chemistry on offense has gotten better. We really struggled those first four games. We felt out of synch. I’m certainly glad we pulled it back together. We probably played our best game last week, and that’s what you want in the playoffs. You want to be playing at a high level, and last week we were able to do that.”

On whether the margin of victory in the Pierce County win was a surprise: “I don’t know. We tell the kids all the time, ‘Don’t be surprised when good things happen if you work hard during the week.’ I thought we were well prepared. I’ll be honest with you, I was really worried about (Pierce County) because they’re such a good, physical team. I’m glad our players matched their physicality. I think that was a confidence booster for us. Fellowship hasn’t played South Georgia teams much. Those guys — Appling County, Fitzgerald, Pierce County — those are perennial South Georgia programs. Great coaches. I’m glad to win, and I’m glad we played well.”

On having to travel to Fitzgerald: “We made the trip to Savannah last year to play Calvary Day. This is another great experience of high school football. We get to go to Fitzgerald, and anytime you have the chance to go to a place where the program is so good — it’s just a good experience. You get caught up in trying to win a game, but high school football is about an experience. So, enjoy the day. We’re travel down there early, stop and get something to eat. I’ve got a couple of buddies with a place we can do a walkthrough. We consider it an honor to play them. A lot of people see the bracket and say, ‘You don’t want to play the No. 1 team until the finals,’ but if you want to play 15 games, you have to play good people. We feel like we’ve had that back-to-back-to-back. Our first round game wasn’t your typical No. 4 seed. North Murray came out of a three-way tie, and I think they have that region’s best offense outside of Rockmart. So, that was a good game. Then it was Pierce County. Now, Fitzgerald. It’s not something we have to do. It’s something we get to do.”

On the team entering the playoffs unranked: “They were fine with it. At the beginning of the year, we had moved out of 1A, and the teams we lost to were still in 1A, and they were good. Mount Pisgah, Rabun County and Saint Francis. We didn’t know at the time how good those guys were. When we saw them on film, we had a good idea. Saint Francis is one of the most physically talented teams in the state. Rabun County has arguably the best offense and the best quarterback in the state. And Mount Pisgah had a wonderful year. Losses are a problem if you don’t process them well. Every year there’s three seasons. You hope your non-region schedule produces some good things. Sometimes the best things come from losses, because they tend to get your attention more. After five game, we were concerned. We weren’t playing consistently. We beat Trinity Christian, and that was a surprise when they didn’t have a great year. Beating a 4A school in Lovett was big for us. It was up and down. Then, region was what it was. There were some good games in there. We got better and we continue to. Over our last five games, we’ve gotten better, and we’ll have to be better this week, too, because Fitzgerald is that good.”

On facing the Cane and coach Tucker Pruitt: “First of all, Tucker comes from good stock. His father (Robby Pruitt) is a great coach, so he knows football. They present so many problems when they’re on offense. There’s a lot of teams that do a lot, but there’s not a lot of teams that do a lot and do it well, and that’s what Tucker does. They are extremely good. It’s hard to prepare in a week. With a team like Fitzgerald, you’re better off, really, if you have a chance to see them over a period of years, maybe being in the same region. Trying to prepare for them in one week is impossible, so we have to try to lock into what we’re doing and play hard. Offensively, we would do ourselves a favor if we can hold onto the football and keep their offense on the sideline. Now, that’s going to be hard, because their defense is good. Listen, Fitzgerald is no accident when you look at their history. They’re hitting on all cylinders. The great thing about all of this is, after the game Friday night, we’ll have a good idea of where Fellowship Christian stands when it comes to 2A football. We really didn’t get caught up in the rankings. When I saw the early rankings, I knew we weren’t ready for it. Rankings are a guess. There’s so many things you don’t see or know. So, the fact we weren’t in the rankings — we don’t use that as motivation. All that motivational stuff goes out the window five minutes into the game. The finals rankings matter, and we think we’re a top four team in Georgia right now. So, where we finish in that mix, we’re not sure we can control that. But, I think we’ll play a great ball game, and I know we’ll have a great effort. So, hopefully we go down there and give it our best shot.”

No. 4 Thomson Bulldogs (12-1; No. 1 seed, Region 4) at No. 3 Appling County Pirates (11-1; No. 1 seed, Region 3)

Thomson coach Michael Youngblood:

On the chaotic fourth quarter against South Atlanta in the quarterfinals: “It was exciting to be a part of it, and definitely to come out victorious always makes it better. The biggest thing is, you have to keep coaching. It doesn’t stop. You’ve got to go for four quarters. We got up and, I’m not going to say we relaxed, but they made a few plays. We had to go back and make plays, and they kept making plays. At the end, we were able to get some interceptions and put it away. But, I’ve been doing this a really long time, and I’ve never seen anything like that, or been a part of anything like that.”

On Jontavis Curry’s quarterfinals performance: “The thing about Curry is we’ve (known) about the things he can do, but now the state can see because it’s the playoffs. When you start narrowing it down to eight schools playing in 2A, and now it’s the Final Four, it’s a little bit different can you can do it on a stage like that. We all know he can do it, so we have to put him in positions to be successful, and do things necessary to help prepare our team.

On advancing to the semifinals: “The thing is, that was just one step. There’s five steps in this thing when you make it to the playoffs. Sometimes, that step is very big, and sometimes it’s small. Last week was a really big step for us. But, Friday night, we’ve got another big step ahead of us. Our biggest thing with keeping them focused is, ‘Hey, we didn’t make a play right here, but you have to shake that off like a big league pitcher.’ In the majors, you’re not going to stop throwing 97 just because someone smacked it out of the park. You’re going to work on your ball placement, and continuously make plays. That’s what I tried to drill home to our kids, is just keep making plays, and they finished the way they needed to.”

On the team’s resolve in the face of a South Atlanta rally: “We played our rivals the first game of season. We made a few mistakes, and I feel like we should have won. We always go back to that game, and that’s why we schedule the teams we do. We try to schedule bigger schools, and good competition where we’re not traveling across state, but still playing good teams and in playoff-like atmospheres. I told them after the first game that this is like the second or third round, or the semifinals. You can’t make mistakes and expect to win, and if you do make mistakes, shake it off and keep going. I attribute that to our scheduling and making sure we’re ready for moments like that.”

On Thomson coming down from the high of an emotional win to play the next round: “We shook that off on the bus ride back down I-20. That’s not our final destination. we enjoyed the win, but at 12 (a.m., the start of the next day), we hit reset, go into film study, preparation of the body, lifting weights, nutrition and getting back into the regular routine with school (after Thanksgiving break). Lunch periord, weight training — now we’re back in the regular routine we’re used to.

On Appling County: “It’s all about matchups. Teams they’ve played have been good matchups for them. They do a tremendous job throwing, and a tremendous job on the line. When they don’t pass, they’ll run it down your throat. Basically it’s what they want to do, and they do what they want. They play a 4-3 defense, and they’re so strong and big up front. The control your offensive line with their defensive line. Their linebackers are active, the secondary is bend-but-don’t-break and they do a good job of keeping the ball in front of them. I have to make sure we do what we can to neutralize our speedesters against them, and find different things we can do. I expect a really good game down there in Baxley, Ga.”

Appling County coach Jordan Mullis

On his team’s approach: “I think it’s because we have fairly young team. Not necessarily with age, but from an experience standpoint. We graduated big, talented senior class. More importantly, and I think every high school football coach can relate, not only did we graduate a talented senior class, but the guys have been here two, three years. A lot of them were three-year starers. You look out there, and your right guard has played 35 games in a row, the defensive end has played 40 games in a row. That kind of thing. At the beginning of year, we shot ourselves in the foot, had a few injuries. Guys who were juniors and seniors had two or three starts under their belt for career. We had guys banged up who had to play same week. At the beginning of the year, we were inexperienced. Now, they all have 12, 13 games, and they’ve quadrupled their experience. That allows them to play with more confidence, and to be more excited about success they’ve had the last two years. They’re starting to believe in how we do things.”

On winning at Callaway by a comfortable margin: “It wasn’t comfortable. I’m not trying to sound crazy. (Callaway coach Pete) Wiggins does a great job, and they’ve won a million games the last few years. Their average year seems like the semifinals, and they’ve won (a championship). We wanted to be sound, and figure out what they were trying to do to us. They were multiple on defense, with a 3-3 stack under-over, blitzing, athletic, very-well coached in the secondary. We hung with them in the first half. They ran some trick plays were were concerned about, and they executed well. We kicked a field goal right before the half. Earlier, they’d fumbled and gave us plus-field position early in the first half, and we felt if we could punch it in right there, we’d get it going. We got it at the 15, but fumbled it right back the next play. They took a shot, completed it 86 yards, and that knocked us down a little. So, to get that field goal before halftime was huge for us, and we feel like we’re a second-half team. I try to tell our kids the way we do things from a program standpoint. Not the game — that’s 48 minutes — but you spend time preparing with offseason camps, the weight room, etc. I told the kids, we have a two-point lead and if they dont’ score again, we win. But let’s play as hard as we can. We made adjustments, didn’t turn the ball over. As far as what happened, they punted to us and Jalen Johnson returned it for a touchdown. He is the guy that fumbled, and they want to feel a certain way when something bad happens. But, he made a play, and we got the momentum. Once we got it back, we didn’t turn it lose.”

On Thomson: “Thomson is probably, we feel, the best team we’ve played all year. They have a ton of kids that flat-out get it done, and (Jontavis) Curry is one of them. We explained it as, they have six or seven kids that have a rocket engine in their rear end and, as soon as they get the ball, they aim it at the end zone, and then light it up. I think for Thomson to do what they did and hang in their, getting down to South Atlanta, with every kid looking 6-5, 250, and their running back is going to Purdue, for Thomson to hang in there, battle back and respond, that shows you how athletic they are, and what coach Youngblood has been able to do as far as managing them and their emotions. We played them in the (3A) quarterfinals last year, and they have a good Mike linebacker and a good defensive end. We’re familiar with them, and we broke down their 12 games last year to get ready for them. So, we’re familiar with their seniors. Then we put the tape on this year. My first thought was, where’d all these other dudes come from, and they’re good. They have a new quarterback, and he hasn’t skipped a beat. You knew Curry and some others were coming back. Then there’s the ones you didn’t see last year. Seeing how explosive they are on offense, how fast they are on defense, and how hard coach Youngblood has them playing, and to me that speaks to two things. One, the pedigree and the titles, the Luther Welsh days, and the expectation at The Brickyard to win. And two, what that staff has done to get football important, and to get the kids to sell out.”